By Scott Reeder -
SPRINGFIELD – “Commonsense justice” took a blow last week when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Illinois voters can’t have a voice in amending the state constitution when it comes to how legislative districts are drawn.
The decision was written by Justice Tom Kilbride who was first elected to the high court in 2000 with a platform of “commonsense justice” -- and the support of House Speaker Mike Madigan.
I’ve known Kilbride for more than 20 years, have read many of his decisions and have found them almost universally well-reasoned -- even the ones I disagreed with. And he is a genuinely nice person. I remember when my brother was dying, he told me he was praying for him. That meant a lot to me.
But, man, I believe he was wrong-headed in his decision on legislative redistricting.
Madigan is a master of the dark art of drawing legislative district boundaries to ensure that he hangs onto a Democratic majority in the House – and his hold on power.
For decades, he and his minions have drawn legislative districts so craftily that in most races it’s a foregone conclusion which party will represent a given area.
In fact, at my request earlier this year, Ballotpedia analyzed 2016 Illinois election filing data and found that in 67 percent of Illinois legislative districts the candidate, usually an incumbent, will run unopposed in November.
Yes, you read that right. More than two-thirds of the time, voters have only one legislative candidate to “choose” from. And in the remaining one-third of districts, the opposition is usually nominal.
Candidates don’t run because they know a person of their political party can’t win in the district where they live.
And this is how Madigan has hung onto power.
And the only way this system can be altered is by amending the state constitution.
Usually, the Illinois General Assembly has to put measures on the ballot to amend the constitution.
But drafters of the state constitution didn’t think it was a good idea to leave reforming the legislature in the hands of, well, the legislature itself. So they empowered voters to place measures to reform the legislature on the ballot through a petition drive.
And this year, almost 600,000 Illinoisans signed the petitions to allow voters to decide whether the redistricting process should be taken out of the hands of politicians.
Splitting along partisan lines, four Democratic justices ruled that voters won’t get to vote on the measure.
The decision was a blow to democracy in the state of Illinois. And it gives voters yet another reason to lose faith in their state and become cynical about government.
Republican Justice Robert Thomas dissented writing, "The Illinois constitution is meant to prevent tyranny, not to enshrine it."
Democrat justices blocked the measure going on the ballot on technical grounds.
In its decision, the majority held that the plan to turn over the remapping process to a group mostly composed of non-lawmakers was improper because some of the power to select the re-mappers would be given to the state's auditor general.
And, gee, the responsibilities of the auditor general are covered by a different part of the constitution than the one being amended.
Yeah, that seems like a good reason to slap nearly 600,000 petition signers in the face.
Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent, "The majority's ruling in this case comes at a particularly unfortunate time. 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."
Amen, Brother Thomas.
Folks are angry with the political process and they are demanding change. Look no further than the insurgent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
The demand for change is palatable.
And yet, the Illinois Supreme Court voted not only against democracy – but against commonsense.
In a democracy, voters should decide.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.