CHICAGO (AP) — A divided Illinois Supreme Court narrowly ruled Thursday that a voter referendum seeking to change how Illinois draws political boundaries is unconstitutional, making it ineligible to appear on the November ballot.
The high court, in a 4-3 decision, affirmed the ruling by a Cook County judge who determined the ballot initiative seeking to give legislative mapmaking power to an independent commission instead of lawmakers didn't meet constitutional muster. It's the second failed attempt to overhaul redistricting by petition in two years.
The ruling in the high-stakes case — falling the day before an election deadline to certify fall ballots — had the potential to alter Illinois' political power dynamic, where elected officials in the Democratic-leaning state run the once-a-decade process. But in a 63-page ruling the majority justices said the measure didn't meet narrow constitutional requirements.
"The intent demonstrated by both the plain constitutional language and this court's prior case law imposes clear restrictions on the scope of permissible ballot initiatives," Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote for the majority. "We may not ignore our mandate by simply deferring to the redistricting approach proffered by a particular ballot proposal, no matter how appealing it may be."
The legal arguments in the case have largely centered on whether the ballot measure met the constitutional scope of being "structural and procedural" to the state's Legislature.
It's a high bar. Only one other petition-driven measure has made it to the ballot.
Justices were sharply divided.
Dissenting Justice Robert Thomas blasted the majority decision as "nothing less than the nullification of a critical component" of the constitution with "particularly unfortunate" timing.
"In Illinois, as throughout the United States, there is a palpable sense of frustration by voters of every political affiliation that self-perpetuating institutions of government have excluded them from meaningful participation in the political process," he wrote.
Backers of the measure — called the Independent Maps coalition — said they would consider whether to seek a rehearing. They collected about 563,000 signatures for the ballot measure, claiming the current mapmaking process is too political. They wanted voters to endorse a complex new system that would include an 11-member bipartisan commission, the state auditor general and a random drawing.
"Mapmaking by legislators — the very people whose re-elections depend on partisan maps — has led to a decline in competitive elections and voter dissatisfaction," said Dennis FitzSimons, the group's chairman. "Drafters of the Illinois Constitution would not recognize the interpretation made by the Supreme Court majority."
The ballot measure was challenged through a lawsuit brought by an attorney who has long represented top Democrats, including the leader of the state party, House Speaker Michael Madigan. The complaint was filed on behalf of minority business and community leaders called the People's Map who claimed a new process would diminish minority representation. However, those arguments weren't addressed in court.
"Any attempt to weaken the rights of minority voters is an attack on democracy itself, making today's ruling a victory for a fair and truly accountable electoral process," People's Map chairman John Hooker said in a statement.
Independent Maps, whose members included Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, dismissed the lawsuit as the work of "entrenched" interests. Democratic leaders have said they weren't involved in the lawsuit.
Independent Maps attorneys had argued that since legislative districts are the "building blocks of the General Assembly," redistricting is by its nature structural and procedural. In briefs to the high court, they addressed the intent of the Illinois Constitution, last rewritten in 1970, and argued that not reversing the Cook County judge's ruling would "eviscerate the constitutional right" to directly propose reforms.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, the state's first GOP governor in over a decade, supported a 2014 redistricting effort as part of his gubernatorial run. A Cook County judge rejected that attempt.
"Fair maps create fair districts," Rauner said in a statement. "The system is broken and controlled by career politicians,"
State election officials had already determined the measure appeared to have enough valid signatures ahead of Friday's deadline to certify ballots.
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