CHICAGO (AP) — A referendum allowing Illinois voters to decide if an independent commission should draw the state's political boundaries was struck down by a judge Wednesday who ruled it was unconstitutional for November's ballot.
The 37-page written decision by Cook County Judge Diane Larsen was the second setback to advocates of redistricting reform since 2014 when a judge tossed a similar proposal. Both times an attorney linked to top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, filed lawsuits claiming the plans weren't constitutional.
The latest measure — called the Independent Map Amendment — proposed an 11-member commission take over drawing legislative boundaries, instead of leaving the process to party leaders. Commission members would be chosen through a complex system involving the auditor general and potentially Illinois Supreme Court members. Backers, including business and bipartisan political leaders, said they learned from the failed attempt.
The group, which claims the once-a-decade redistricting method is too political, vowed Wednesday to file an expedited appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.
"A great deal of care went into crafting an amendment that follows constitutional guidelines while also creating a system that is independent, fair, transparent, and protects the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choosing," Independent Maps chairman Dennis FitzSimons said in a statement.
The lawsuit argued the plan didn't meet requirements that changes to the Legislature be "structural and procedural." It was filed on behalf of minority business and community leaders calling themselves the People's Map. They claimed the current process protects minority representation, though those arguments weren't mentioned in court.
People's Map chairman John Hooker called the decision a victory for democracy and minority rights.
"This unconstitutional amendment would put a tremendous amount of authority in the hands of unelected middlemen unaccountable to the taxpayers," he said in a statement. "Any effort to weaken minority rights harms us all and should be seen as nothing more than a major setback in what has been accomplished for minority rights in Illinois."
The judge, who called parts of the Independent Map group's arguments "unavailing," wrote the proposal didn't meet constitutional requirements and added extra duties, including for the auditor general.
In court, Independent Map lawyers argued that since legislative districts are the "building blocks" of the Legislature, redistricting is by its nature structural and procedural. The group dismissed the lawsuit an effort by "entrenched interests."
The court decision followed an Associated Press report that the People's Map formed as a political committee last summer but hasn't disclosed any expenses or donations in state campaign filings despite the expensive legal battle.
Changes to the way Illinois draws political lines could diminish the power of party leaders. Democrats last ran the process because they controlled the state House, Senate and governor's office.
Republicans criticized the judge's decision.
First-term Gov. Bruce Rauner called the ruling a "harsh reminder" that Illinois needs reform. He pushed for term limits in his gubernatorial bid and backed the 2014 redistricting plan. A judge threw out both.
"Independent Maps has strong support from both Democrats and Republicans," Rauner said in a statement. "So this ruling is definitely a setback for the people of Illinois."
The State Board of Elections had already determined the Independent Map Amendment appeared to have enough valid signatures. Election officials face an Aug. 26 deadline to certify the ballot. An appeal could complicate the timing.
Legal experts say getting such a measure before voters will be difficult, particularly when the argument has to fit a narrow scope.
Only one voter-backed initiative has made it to the ballot and been successful. While an activist over 30 years ago, former Gov. Pat Quinn led the 1980 "cutback amendment," an effort to reduce the size of the Illinois House and how residents elect legislators.
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