Slowik: Ruling in Chicago Heights voting rights case might have national implications
A recent appellate court ruling in a case involving voting rights in a south suburb might have national implications in future legal fights over gerrymandering and fairness in the electoral process.
In a nutshell, judges on the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found on Jan. 22 that officials in Chicago Heights did their best to uphold voting rights and minority representation on the city council.
Mayor David Gonzalez told me he agrees with the decision, which is the latest wrinkle in a case that originated more than 30 years ago.
"You have a very fair representation now" on the council, Gonzalez said Wednesday. "We also see more diversity in the (city government) workforce, among department heads" and other city employees.
The current makeup of the seven-member council is three whites, two blacks and two Hispanics. In Chicago Heights, 41 percent of residents were black, 32 percent, Hispanic and 23 percent, white in 2010, according to Census data.
The elected city council hasn't always included members who represent minority populations. Back in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president, the race and ethnicity of elected city council members in Chicago Heights and some other communities did not adequately reflect the diversity of the overall population.
"There was no Latino or black representation in the 1980s" on the council, Gonzalez said. Back then, every alderman was elected "at-large," and represented everyone in the city.
An attorney from Springfield changed that. James Craven was a lawyer and former state appellate court judge who made it his mission to address how minorities were being deprived fair representation in local governments.
"Perhaps the highlight of his legal work began in 1985, with the first of many cases filed under the federal Voting Rights Act on behalf of African-American and Hispanic communities in Illinois and California," the 2015 obituary for Craven said, in part.
"Those lawsuits resulted in changes in the form of municipal and special district governments in Springfield, Danville, Peoria and Chicago Heights, which guarantee minority voters the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice," the obituary said.
Craven's advocacy to address fair representation of minorities was widely known. He was highly regarded for his skill in using the legal system to address shortcomings of local elections in Chicago Heights and elsewhere.
"I think when the opportunity comes along for a lawyer to do something with societal impact and he can do it, that's a high privilege," The New York Times quoted Craven as saying for a 1987 profile.
Craven's lawsuit prompted Chicago Heights to change the way it elects aldermen. Beginning in 1995, the city moved away from at-large representation and created seven wards, each with an alderman.
The Chicago Heights Park District also was a defendant in Craven's suit and adopted similar changes. The case remained active through the decades as ward maps had to be redrawn to ensure fair representation following population changes in 2000 and 2010.
"We will briefly summarize the relevant facts, but the long history of this litigation has been well documented through numerous written opinions," the appellate court said in its Jan. 22 ruling.
Originally, a group of African-American and Hispanic residents were plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. Most of the parties were satisfied when Chicago Heights switched to ward elections.
But two residents — Kevin Perkins and Robert McCoy — split from the class of other plaintiffs and continued to challenge the fairness of the city's system. My efforts to reach Perkins and McCoy and their attorneys on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
The appellate court ruling addressed their challenge of how the city redrew its ward map in 2014. The court found the city "made a good faith effort" to meet the U.S. Constitutional mandate of population equality when it redrew ward boundaries after the 2010 Census.
It gets complicated, but the case involved important principals of fairness. The appellate court looked at whether the city gerrymandered wards to deny minorities representation. Judges ruled the city did the best it could.
"In voting rights cases, the constitutional mandate of a 10 percent population deviation has long been the long-held, fixed standard for accepting a voting district's boundaries," attorney Michael Del Galdo said in a news release. His firm, Del Galdo Law Group of Berwyn, represented Chicago Heights in federal court.
The constitutional principal of population equality holds that when a jurisdiction is split up into districts, each district should have about the same number of residents. There can be slight variances in the size of wards or districts, but the difference between the largest and smallest districts cannot exceed 10 percent, courts have traditionally held.
In the Chicago Heights case, the appellate court allowed the city's 2014 remap to stand even though the population deviation between the largest ward and the smallest ward was 12.65 percent, Del Galdo Law Group attorney Austin Zimmer, who worked on the case, told me on Wednesday.
"The city did an excellent job trying to preserve the consent decree, and the courts upheld that," Zimmer said.
The appellate court rejected the argument by plaintiffs Perkins and McCoy that they should be allowed to draw a different map of ward boundaries based on 2010 Census data, Zimmer said.
Del Galdo Law Group said in its news release the case "likely set a precedent" because a court for the first time allowed a population deviation of greater than 10 percent in redrawing district boundaries. The law firm, however, warned that this should not be viewed as a reason to abandon the long-held threshold.
"The judge only accepted the additional 2.65 percent deviation because Chicago Heights demonstrated its good faith in aiming for 10 percent," Del Galdo said in the release. "So, mapmakers elsewhere should not view the federal judge's decision as signal to play cute with district borders in the future."
It's unlikely, though possible, that the plaintiffs could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gonzalez told me he hopes the recent ruling puts the matter to rest for good.
"To keep challenging maps is a waste of taxpayer money," he said.