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Judges question lawyers in trio of Illinois redistricting suits

Illinois' new congressional district map as passed in September. Arguments are before the state legislature presently challenging a set of new districts passed earlier this year.
Illinois Senate Redistricting Committee
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Illinois' new congressional district map as passed in September. A trio of arguments are before the state legislature presently challenging this new set of districts.

CHICAGO — Oral arguments began Tuesday in three lawsuits challenging the new legislative district maps that lawmakers passed earlier this year with three federal judges asking detailed questions of all the parties in the cases.

Each case centers on the question of whether Democrats in the General Assembly violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 in drawing the maps by diluting the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities – specifically, Hispanic voters in the Chicago area and Black voters in East St. Louis and the surrounding Metro East region.

All of the parties have spent the last several weeks filing thousands of pages of written briefs, depositions and other documents to bolster their cases, but on Tuesday it was the judges’ turn to focus the attention on the few questions that could be pivotal in deciding whether the maps that lawmakers approved will stand for the next 10 years or whether changes need to be made to protect minority voting rights.

Among the questions the judges asked was if voters of different races and ethnicities in Illinois still vote as identifiable blocs, whether the exact composition of a district really matters or if there is enough “crossover” voting in the state that minority groups can still win representation in the General Assembly even though they are minorities within their own districts.

“Illinois in 2020 is not your grandfather’s Illinois,” Sean Berkowitz, an attorney defending the maps passed by the General Assembly, told the judges.

Berkowitz pointed to the fact that there are a number of Black lawmakers in the Statehouse who do not come from predominantly Black communities. He also pointed to the fact that even though whites make up the largest racial group in Illinois, the current lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state are all Black while one U.S. senator, Tammy Duckworth, is Asian American.

“Crossover voting in Illinois is the norm, not the exception,” he said, adding that Illinois today “is not Mississippi in 1965 or Illinois in 1980.”

Plaintiffs in the cases include a group of Latino voters in the Chicago area represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Black voters in the Metro East region represented by the state and local branches of the NAACP, as well as the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, or UCCRO; and Republican leaders in the General Assembly who are challenging both the Chicago and Metro East redistricting plans.

Those attorneys spent the morning trying to convince the judges that racially polarized voting does continue to exist in Illinois and that if the maps approved by the legislature are allowed to stand, Latino and Black voters will lose political influence in state government.

Oral arguments are expected to wrap up by the afternoon, although the judges have allowed for the possibility that they could continue Wednesday morning.

The cases are moving through the court on an expedited schedule in hopes of having a decision in time for candidates in the 2022 elections to begin circulating nominating positions in mid-January.

This story will be updated.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.
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