Illinois courts director slams subcircuit remap as ‘unmitigated disaster,’ vents frustrations to chief judges in memo

Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The state’s new subcircuit judicial redistricting maps have “many, many issues that are in need of attention,” according to an internal memo that went out to the Chief Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court on Friday morning.

The subcircuit judicial maps, which Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law on Friday, convert a total of 33 “at-large” judgeships into “resident” judgeships. The General Assembly’s reorganization of the judiciary would shrink the numbers of Illinois’ 200 at-large judgeships down to 167, and would expand the state’s 245 resident judgeships up to 278.

Statements from the Senate President and House Speaker’s office suggested the revised election maps would improve diversity in the judiciary by carving urban city centers out of larger sprawling rural regions to give voters of color more influence over the outcome of judicial elections.

An at-large judge is elected by all of the voters in an entire circuit, while a resident judge is elected by a smaller, more localized group of voters in the subcircuit. Expanding the number of subcircuit districts allows the party in power more influence over the judiciary. By whittling down the size of large districts into subcircuits, Democrats who drew the maps can “pack and crack” voters into different regions and divide urban voters from rural regions.

“The creation of new subcircuits in DuPage, Sangamon and Madison counties will give minority communities a better opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and influence elections,” an email from Speaker Chris Welch’s office said. “These new subcircuits will help improve the diversity of opinion and background of judges, while giving everyone a voice in electing a bench of judges they feel best represent their communities.”

Amid the shuffle, the courts’ top administrator felt frustrated about how they would implement the new changes during an election year.

Marcia Meis, the Director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, vented about her frustrations to the Supreme Court justices in an email at 10:28 a.m., two days after Democrats who hold supermajorities in the General Assembly rammed their new court map proposals through both chambers without any Republican support.

Meis was appointed to her role by the Supreme Court, which includes a majority of Democratic judges. Election records show Meis pulled a Democratic ballot in every election dating back to 2012. Still, she described the “legislation railroaded through earlier this week by the General Assembly” as “an unmitigated disaster.”

Even more notably, Meis’ email suggested that her staff was given assurances from unnamed legislators about what would be included in the new redistricting law. She claimed the General Assembly instead adopted “completely different and confounding language — with serious 2022 election implications.”

Meis could not be reached directly to expand on her memo, but Christopher Bonjean, a spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court, said, “The Director was in no way referring to the intent or substance of the law, merely the capacity to implement immediately. As we learned with judicial redistricting, implementation is something that takes time.”

The courts would not directly answer questions asking which specific legislators offered assurances to court staff about the bill’s language prior to its passage, nor would a spokesperson explain how the changes in the new redistricting law were different than what they expected. Sources familiar with the process said last minute negotiations stemming around Lake County’s 19th circuit court system, which sometimes supplies judges to hear cases in other circuits across the state, held up the legislative debate last week in the Senate until a deal was finally reached.

While many of the modifications in the new subcircuit remap wouldn’t take effect until 2024, other more immediate changes include a requirement that Chief Justice Anne Burke should certify vacancies on the court with the State Board of Elections. Some of those seats must be recertified in new subcircuits, and the petition process for candidates to appear on the 2022 primary ballots begins later this week.

The General Assembly did extend the filing period for petitions in new subcircuits they created in the 3rd and 19th circuits by about two months to provide candidates more time to prepare for their campaigns, and to grant election officials more time to process their petitions.

During floor debate last week, Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) described the changes to the maps as alterations that would create opportunities for voters to elect a more racially diverse judiciary.

“The Illinois Courts continue to work with the General Assembly to ensure Public Act 102-0693 can be successfully and seamlessly implemented and not disrupt the upcoming election process,” Bonjean said.

Illinois legislators haven’t modified the judicial circuit or subcircuit boundaries since they were drawn in 1991. Legislative leaders pointed to significant population shifts over the last three decades to justify the recent changes.

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