Illinois House, Senate send proposal for new judicial 'subcircuits' to governor's desk

Dean Olsen and Andrew Adams
The State Journal-Register
The sun rises over the Illinois Capitol on Oct. 20. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Democrats in the Illinois Senate and House pushed through legislation Wednesday night that would create new judicial “subcircuits” in Sangamon, Madison and DuPage counties.

Before sending House Bill 3138 to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk with no Republican votes, Democrats who control the General Assembly defended the new proposed subcircuits and other changes in residential qualifications for elected circuit judges in the Chicago area the counties of Peoria, Champaign and Rock Island. They said the plan would give Black and Hispanic judicial candidates more of a chance to get elected.

“It’s designed to bring diversity based on population shifts,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero.

More:Democratic lawmakers move forward with plans for new 'subcircuits' in 7th Judicial Circuit

Republicans said the move is a brazen attempt to fill the bench with Democratic judges who would support Democratic initiatives and philosophies in court rulings.

“It's an abomination to this institution. It's an abomination to the people of Illinois,” state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said before the House voted 66-34 along partisan lines to send the bill to the Democratic governor’s desk.

"This is the perfect example why politicians shouldn't draw maps," said Butler, Republican spokesman on the House Redistricting Committee. "This is the perfect example why we need an independent, citizen-led commission to draw our maps, from the legislative to the congressional to the judicial, and even the Cook County Board of Review." 

Illinois state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, questions Andrew Ellison about his his proposed maps during a House Redistricting Committee hearing at the state Capitol on Oct. 20. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Earlier in the evening, the Senate approved the bill on a vote of 41 to 16

Republicans and many Democrats, including Pritzker, have supported the concept of an independent commission for map-making, but not enough lawmakers have supported the idea to change state law or put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The bill that passed Wednesday was supported by the Springfield area’s two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, and Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield.

HB 3138 is almost identical to the original bill, Senate Bill 928, which was introduced Wednesday morning and passed by a House committee, only one hour after it was introduced and with little input from the general public, Republican lawmakers or members of the judiciary.

HB 3138 would split the 7th Judicial Circuit — which covers the counties of Sangamon, Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan and Scott — into seven subcircuits.

Sangamon County would have two subcircuits — one covering most of Springfield — and the other covering the rest of the county. Each of the other counties would have their own subcircuits.

Each subcircuit would include judges who would have to live in those subcircuits and be elected only by voters in those subcircuits.

As part of what Democrats said was an effort to give minority voters more of a chance to elect judges who look like them, the legislation wouldn’t affect the terms of any current judges or any retention votes, which are conducted every six years after judges are first elected.

The bill also wouldn’t increase the overall number of $216,297-per-year circuit judges in the 12-judge 7th Circuit or in other circuits statewide.

In the 7th Circuit, three judges would be elected from the first subcircuit, which contains most of Springfield. Three judges would be elected from the second circuit, which takes in the outskirts of Springfield and the rest of Sangamon County.

More:GOP cries foul about new judicial subcircuits, Democrats meeting the members of Congress

One judge would be elected at large — from throughout the circuit — and one judge would be elected from each of the five other counties in the circuit.

The legislation would convert four of the five current at-large judge positions into resident judges elected from a subcircuit in Sangamon County.

These four positions, plus the two existing residential judge positions in Sangamon, would create a pool of six judge positions that would be distributed among the two new subcircuits in the county.

The at-large judge position that remains after the first four have been converted to resident judge slots would remain at-large, under the legislation.

The bill would affect the 7th Circuit and most other parts of the state for elections in 2024 and beyond. Judicial elections would be affected beginning this year in Madison and Lake counties, where there are judicial vacancies.

Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Vandalia, was among a group of Republicans who critiqued the bill. He said he heard opposition to the measure from his local judges and court officials.  

“This is going to have a significant impact on Madison County,” Plummer said. “I’m proud to represent Madison County. I’ve received massive negative feedback.” 

Two Republican circuit judges from Madison County — Christopher Threlkeld and Amy Sholar  — who were appointed to fill residential judge vacancies, have announced their intention to run for election in 2022. 

HB 3138 would split Madison County, a county of 260,000 people, into three subcircuits.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the bill’s Senate sponsor, did not provide any examples of groups that had been consulted in Madison County while preparing the legislation. Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said the new subcircuit maps were “done in such a quick way, it doesn’t make sense to rush this to this extent.”

Republican Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, who earlier Wednesday said Republicans wouldn’t assist Democrats in establishing an in-person quorum to debate the legislation, said the process was rushed and that more time was needed.

“This is partisan court packing,” he said.

Harmon said: "We don’t have the luxury of waiting. We need to pass this and move on.” 

Butler said during House debate on the bill that Democrats were acting hastily for partisan gain. And he said Republicans' previous requests for information from Democrats about the potential creation of new subcircuits were ignored. 

"I've seen a lot of crazy stuff over the last year when it comes to redistricting," Butler said. "This is the craziest that I've seen.

"This continues the trend that we've seen from redistricting throughout the year — lack of engagement from the public, lack of input from anyone," Butler said. "Maps are drawn from behind closed doors. ... without engagement from the judiciary, state's attorneys, judges, circuits. No one's been consulted on this. ... You decided to remake the Supreme Court and remake the appellate courts, and now you want to remake the circuit courts so you can defend the governor's agenda in the courts eventually."

Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, said: "If it weren't so bad, it would be hilarious that this legislature is looking at what the sponsor of the bill said in committee was an an independent branch of government. And this partisan body is taking partisan measures to totally recreate an independent body of government."

Added Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, "This bill is nothing more than an unethical, partisan scheme to elect more radical Democrat judges who are going to continue to be soft on the crime that is plaguing our state."

Bourne said the late-night votes that General Assembly Democrats have orchestrated on important issues have been frustrating. Republicans have criticized the timing of votes on new maps for new state legislative districts, the state budget, criminal-justice reform and now judicial subdistricts. The House gave final passage to the subdistricts bill about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"We've gotten into this terrible habit in this legislature in the last year of not doing anything meaningful until the rest of Illinois is asleep," Bourne said.

Contact Andrew Adams: (312) 291-1417, drew.jay.adams@gmail.com. Contact Dean Olsen: dolsen@gannett.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.