Legal Issues In the News

Explaining the Illinois Independent Map Case


A proposal on how we draw legislative districts is the most important state issue in the coming election. Whether we will get to vote on the initiative is now in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Known as the Independent Map amendment, the proposal would amend the Illinois Constitution to remove the redistricting power from state legislators and place it in the hands of an independent commission. On July 20, a Cook County circuit judge held the ballot initiative did not follow the rules on how we can amend our state constitution. Supporters of the initiative have appealed to the state supreme court.

When we enacted our state constitution in 1970, we specified rules on how we can amend it. Illinois case law makes clear that the courts should block a proposed amendment that does not follow these rules.

These rules say the principal way we can amend the Illinois State Constitution is through a proposal that comes out of the General Assembly and then is put to the voters in a general election. The reason for that limitation was to avoid the experience of some other states where voter initiatives had led to a hodgepodge of substantive laws that were difficult to change when it became necessary to do so.

However, the drafters of our state constitution thought it was a bad idea to let the General Assembly be the sole gatekeeper for proposals to change the part of the state constitution that governs the legislature. That part is Article IV. Thus, a voter initiative can amend the state constitution but only if “limited to structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV.”

Most everyone, including the Cook County court, seems to believe that legislative redistricting is a structural and procedural subject contained in Article IV. In debates at the Illinois Constitutional Convention, delegates even cited legislative apportionment as an example of the sort of topic that could be addressed by a voter-initiated amendment. Why, then, is there any controversy?

Although there are some other issues, the legal case principally revolves around the way the Independent Map amendment would be implemented. At the heart of the Independent Map amendment is a commission that would draw the legislative maps. The Illinois auditor general would create both the panel to review applicants for the commission as well as then administer the application process for the commission itself. If the commission was not able to meet the deadline for a redistricting plan, then the Fair Map amendment specifies that two justices of the Illinois Supreme Court from different political parties would appoint a special commissioner to draw up a redistricting plan.

The opponents of the Independent Map amendment point out that different articles of the Illinois Constitution govern the auditor general and state judiciary. For this reason, the Cook County court found the Independent Map amendment was not limited just to subjects contained in Article IV of the state constitution.

The supporters of the Independent Map amendment counter that any redistricting plan will have to be implemented by someone. Requiring that someone to be a subject covered by the legislative powers in Article IV essentially would mean voters could not undertake a redistricting initiative.

The Independent Map amendment is not an end-run around the usual amendment process to change substantive law and thus does not subvert the purpose for the limitation on voter initiatives. How one feels about the case may depend largely on the long-running debate about whether courts should follow only the literal text of a document or also consider other interpretive guideposts like the text’s purpose.

At the Illinois Supreme Court, the few precedents provide no clear outcome. The court ultimately has little to constrain it from coming out either way on this case. And, because the case involves issues of state constitutional law, the state supreme court is the final say. We have an elected judiciary in Illinois meaning citizens who are dissatisfied with whatever the court ends up doing can show their displeasure at the ballot box in future elections.