Courts and asinine law makes Illinois congressional redistricting a pawn of politics

If you're wondering why political reform is so enfeebled in Illinois, consider a federal appeals court decision last week that zapped a Republican effort to make the state's congressional redistricting fair, balanced and honest.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Democrats' unabashed drawing of Illinois' 18 districts in a way that ensures the party's dominance of the state's congressional delegation for the next decade.

"We agree," the court said, "that the predominant intent in drawing several of the (congressional) districts … was political." But, the court said, that doesn't matter, even if the map was drawn "solely" to serve the interests of the Democratic Party.

The court even noted the unseemly influence of Democrats outside of the state in drawing the map. "The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the party's official national campaign apparatus for House elections) was also heavily involved in the creation of the (Democratic map). Several emails between the DCCC and Andy Manar, chief of staff for Illinois (Senate President John) Cullerton, reveal that the primary goal in redistricting was to gain more Democratic seats. These emails discuss ideas about how to make various districts 'more Democratic' and achieve the 'goal' of 'maximiz(ing) Democratic performance.' The partisan motive is most evident in a memo dated May 24, 2011, from the DCCC to Sen. Cullerton describing ways to pick up Democratic seats, to maximize opportunities for Democrats, to destabilize Republican incumbents and to gain partisan advantage. This goal was seemingly accomplished in … Districts 11, 13 and 17."

This map is of, by and for Democrats. It places self-serving political advantage far above the public's interest. The court acknowledged that fact, observing that based on voting patterns, the new map could give Democrats an expected advantage in 12 districts andRepublicans in only six. That's a far cry from the 11 districts currently held by Republicans and the eight by Democrats.

The difference is that the current Republican majority was determined by the voters themselves in the 2010 election, and not by Democratic rajahs like House Speaker Mike Madigan. That the court should endorse this politically inspired coup is troubling, although not shocking.

It's not that the court has sold out to Democrats; indeed, two of the three judges making the decision were appointed by Republican presidents. In truth, the judges had little choice but to follow cockamamie redistricting laws and precedent-setting court decisions.

Both the U.S. and Illinois constitutions (as well as common sense and concepts of fairness and balance) require that the new districts — redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes — be "compact." The language couldn't be any clearer. But you'd never know it from the map that the Democrats concocted. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez's West Side and west suburban district looks like a giant set of earmuffs. U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley's new district would run from Chicago's North Side lakefront all the way to Elmhurst and Hinsdale. Similar districts have been drawn to either force incumbent Republicans to run against each other, or into new, unfamiliar districts.

Sure, the court said, the map was "a blatant political move to increase the number of Democratic congressional seats," and yet it didn't matter. This is a function of how complex and incomprehensible such laws have become in America.

Much of the complexity can be traced to efforts to craft congressional maps as an instrument of social engineering, particularly as a means to redress past and allegedly continuing racial discrimination. But achieving this noble goal has put lawmakers and judges through ever more mind-bending legal contortions.

Charles Dickens famously wrote in his novel, "Oliver Twist," that the "law is a ass" when he was trying to illustrate how its application can sometimes be contrary to common sense. If Dickens had had an opportunity to foresee how we have tied ourselves into knots contrary to common sense, he might well have written, "In Illinois, the law is a complete ass."

This column appeared earlier today in the Chicago Tribune.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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