Capitol Recap: Redrawn state legislative districts withstand legal challenge

SPRINGFIELD – A three-judge federal court panel has upheld the legislative redistricting plan that state lawmakers approved during a special session last summer, thus leaving in place the new maps that will govern state legislative elections for the next 10 years.

In their 64-page opinion, released Thursday, Dec. 30, the judges said the plaintiffs in the three separate lawsuits had failed to show that the redistricting plan violated federal law or the U.S. Constitution by diluting Latino voting power in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs or Black voting power in the Metro East region on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“In the end, we find that the boundaries for Illinois House and Senate districts set out in SB 927 neither violate neither the Voting Rights Act nor the Constitution,” the panel wrote. “The record shows ample evidence of crossover voting to defeat any claim of racially polarized voting sufficient to deny Latino and Black voters of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the challenged districts.”

Last year’s redistricting process was complicated and slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and delayed release of data from the 2020 U.S. Census.

Lawmakers initially passed one set of maps during their regular spring session in May, even though the census data had not yet been released, in order to meet the Illinois Constitution’s June 30 deadline for lawmakers to pass a plan before handing over the process to a bipartisan commission.

A Sangamon County judge heard nearly two full days of arguments related to COVID mitigations in Illinois schools this week, but it could be mo…

Republican leaders in the General Assembly, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, quickly filed suit, arguing the maps violated the one-person, one-vote principle because the districts were not close to being equal in population.

The Census Bureau eventually released the detailed population data on Aug. 12, and lawmakers convened a special session later that month to adjust the maps. Those maps passed the General Assembly on Aug. 31 and Gov. JB Pritzker signed them into law Sept. 24.

MALDEF and the Republicans challenged those new maps as well, arguing that they actually reduced the number of Latino-majority districts in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, even though Latinos were one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in Illinois over the previous 10 years.

Separately, the East St. Louis Branch of the NAACP, along with other civil rights groups, challenged the way lawmakers had redrawn three House districts in the Metro East region, saying the new maps broke up the area’s Black voting population in order to protect two white Democratic incumbents, all to the disadvantage of the region’s only Black House member, Rep. LaToya Greenwood.

Democratic leaders who had approved the new maps argued that they were not drawn for the purpose of racial gerrymandering but, instead, to protect Democratic majorities. They also pointed to recent elections of Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Secretary of State Jesse White, both of whom are Black, as well as Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who is Hispanic, and even former U.S. Sen. and former President Barack Obama to show that white majority voters will cross party lines to elect minorities.

LEGISLATIVE INSPECTOR GENERAL: The last day on the job for the Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope was Thursday, Jan. 6.

The office will be vacant on Friday, Jan. 7.

“We have to reeducate ourselves to fight the corruption that exists under the Capitol dome,” Sen. Jil Tracy, R–Quincy, who chairs the Senate Ethics Commission, said during a news conference Thursday.

Pope, a former prosecutor and appellate court judge, tendered her resignation in July. She called the office a “paper tiger” and blasted lawmakers saying they “demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.” She originally said her last day would be Dec. 16, but agreed to stay on until the Jan. 6 to allow more time for her position to be filled.

“Confirming a candidate before LIG Pope left has always been my top priority. It is unfortunate that my goal was not shared by some of the Democrat members of the (Legislative Ethics Commission) who did what they could to stall and circumvent the selection process,” Tracy said. “Our search committee interviewed multiple candidates and recommended two qualified candidates, and we should have been able to fill this position in a timely manner. But several Democrat members of the LEC did not commit to seeing the process through, and we find ourselves without a qualified LIG to address legislative ethics complaints.”

The search for a new LIG began after Pope announced her resignation in July. The position was posted and the search committee was formed. Two candidates were recommended, but the Legislative Ethics Committee made up of four Democrats and four Republics couldn’t come to a decision.

Tracy blamed the delay on Democrats. But Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, who chairs the Ethics Committee, disagreed.

“Senator Tracy’s claims today are wildly mischaracterizing the situation,” Burke said. “Democrats have sought to advance two candidates for final selection, both of whom have been deemed qualified by the search committee and the LEC. Republicans have blocked that effort, insisting on only advancing their preferred candidate — even though both candidates have worked for former Governor Rauner and have demonstrated nonpartisan, professional expertise. In fact, both are also former federal prosecutors.

“As we’ve said all along, this should be a straightforward process and we must end the political theater so we can fill this critical position. Senator Tracy is right on one thing, the people of Illinois deserve better.”

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: Illinois lawmakers passed a bill clarifying issues around the massive criminal justice reform bill that passed with the support of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus last year.

On a 67-42 vote, the House voted Wednesday, Jan. 6, to accept a senate amendment to House Bill 3512, clarifying issues relating to pretrial services, detainee phone calls and moving back effective dates in the police decertification system and body camera footage labeling.

Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, the lead House sponsor of the bill, said it’s intended to help facilitate the implementation of the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act that was passed in January 2021.

During the debate, Republicans voiced their frustrations regarding language used for detainee phone calls and pretrial services.

The bill outlines that when someone is detained, law enforcement must allow them to make up to three phone calls within three hours of being detained. If the individual is moved from one detention center to the next, the three phone calls and three hours will restart.

But House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, argued that the bill did not provide enough clarification between the words “police custody” and “detention”.

“Police custody means that they’re not free to leave. That means that they’re sitting in a squad car and under the way you’ve drafted your bill, that means that the police have to give that person three phone calls,” Durkin said.

But the bill clarifies that the definition of “detention” is police stations, places that operate municipal police departments, county police departments and other law enforcement agencies.

Slaughter also clarified that the time on phone calls will begin at the place of detention.

It also notes that a record of the phone calls made must be maintained while an individual is in custody. If no calls are made, the detainee must give a statement to the police as to why the person detained did not make any calls.

DCFS STABBING: Sangamon County authorities are holding a Thayer man suspected in the stabbing death of an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services worker.

Police arrived at the home in Thayer – a small town 20 miles south of Springfield – in response to a 911 call at 4:11 p.m. on Tuesday reporting a possible stabbing. After arriving at the scene, law enforcement spotted a blood-like substance near the door of the home. Officers forced their way into the house and found Deidre Silas, 36, who died from her injuries.

Silas had gone to the home to check the welfare of children.

Detectives arrived and obtained a search warrant for the home.  Through the investigation, they developed a suspect, Benjamin Howard Reed.

Reed, 32, was located at a hospital in Decatur where he sought treatment for a minor wound about two hours after the initial 911 call. He was questioned by detectives at the hospital and then taken to the Sangamon County Jail.

Silas worked as an investigator for DCFS for about six months. She previously also worked for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. She graduated from Illinois State University in 2008 with a degree in criminal justice. She received her master’s degree in public administration in 2019.

“Deidre responded to this call and dedicated herself to the children, families and communities she served, and we will be forever grateful for her work.  She was an incredible person, and her brightness and positivity will be missed not only by her family and friends, but also her second family at DCFS,” DCFS Director Marc D. Smith said.

This is the second DCFS worker killed on the job in recent years. 

Pam Knight, 59, of Dixon, went to a Milledgeville home on Sept. 29, 2017 to remove a 2-year-old boy from the custody of his father, Andrew Sucher. As Knight got out of her car, prosecutors said Sucher pushed Knight, causing her to strike her head on the concrete driveway then stomped on her head, causing a skull fracture and brain injury. She succumbed to her injuries four and a half months later.

Sucher later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 years in the Department of Corrections.

SHORTENED SESSION: The 2022 session of the Illinois General Assembly will be even shorter than originally planned due to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Democratic leaders announced.

The session was originally scheduled to start this week with three meeting days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 4-6. But leaders announced last week that they would meet only on Wednesday, Jan. 5, this week and it remains uncertain when they will return.

In an announcement released Thursday, Dec. 30, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, said COVID-19 cases in Illinois had increased 130 percent over the previous two weeks while hospitalizations were up 50 percent.

“This pandemic is not over,” Welch said in a statement. “We must take necessary precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus, reduce the burden on our health care systems and keep each other as safe as possible.”

Lawmakers typically meet from January through the end of May, with a short veto session that is usually held in October or November.

This year, however, they originally planned to meet only from Jan. 4 through April 8 for a session that would focus mainly on passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. That was meant to leave them time to campaign ahead of this year’s primary, which was pushed back to June 28 due to delays in last year’s redistricting process.

Since late October, however, Illinois has seen a massive surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, driven in part by the new Omicron variant, with daily case counts now far exceeding their November 2020 peaks.

In January 2021, lawmakers convened a lame duck session primarily to consider a legislative package of education, criminal justice and health care reforms being pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. During that session, the House met in a convention center in downtown Springfield, several blocks from the Statehouse, while the Senate continued to meet in the Statehouse under strict testing, masking and social distancing protocols.

When lawmakers convened the regular session later in January, both chambers adopted special rules allowing committee meetings to be held remotely and for some members to participate in floor debate and vote on legislation remotely.

“We continue to monitor the situation in an effort to protect our colleagues, our staffs and everyone else who is part of a legislative session day,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park said. “We have work to do, and we’ve proven that we can do it, minimize exposure and keep people healthy and safe. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the vaccines and booster shots available to protect themselves and those around them.”

COVID-19 UPDATE: As the omicron variant surges across the state, Gov. JB Pritzker warned Monday, Jan. 3, that hospitalizations are about as high as they were last winter before vaccines were widely available. About 85 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state are unvaccinated.

“It is frustrating and tragic that two years into the pandemic, with multiple widely available and free, life-saving vaccines, that we are once again in this horrible position,” Pritzker said during a news conference in Chicago.

The Illinois Public Health Department reported 6,294 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sunday, the most since the pandemic began. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, IDPH director, said an average of 550 people are being admitted to hospitals each day.

With hospital beds for other emergencies “frighteningly limited,” Pritzker joined the Illinois Health and Hospital Association in urging health care providers to postpone non-emergency surgeries and procedures as needed to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 cases.

“This surge is testing our health resources yet again,” A.J. Wilhelmi, CEO and president of the IHA said.

Though hospitals have become accustomed to managing bed capacity and the needs of COVID-19 patients over the course of the pandemic, Wilhelmi said the best way for people to provide relief for health care workers and facilities is to get vaccinated and boosted.

Illinois continues to set records for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the highly contagious omicron variant surges across the state.

More than 19 million vaccines have been administered with about 60 percent of Illinois residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

COVID-19 MEASURES: Local hospitals and health departments will get help from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to meet the healthcare demand during a COVID-19 surge, adding staffing to provide medical care and provide vaccines and testing.

The state will also help ramp up COVID-19 testing, now operating six days a week beginning Jan. 3 to increase availability.

“We are also increase testing and continuing to distribute monoclonal antibodies, anti-viral pills and any treatments or personal protective equipment communities need,” Gov. JB Pritzker said during a news conference Monday, Dec. 27. “I will continue to do everything possible to protect all the people of this state, whatever your vaccine status. But what kind of year 2022 turns out to be depends on all of us doing what is best for all of us.”

Pritzker was on a call with President Joe Biden and the National Governors Association on Monday morning to discuss the response to the Omicron variant.

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January 8, 2022 at 04:22PM

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