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Despite council approval, ward remap could still face a fight



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Updated: February 23, 2012 8:20AM

Now that Chicago aldermen have avoided your input by joining forces to ram through new ward boundaries, the question is whether that map will pass legal muster.

And there’s at least some interesting speculation that it won’t.

For decades now, the most formidable challenges to the city’s ward remap process have been mounted by minority groups seeking to overturn unfair treatment by the established white political structure.

But lawyers for one of those groups, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, are telling interested parties they believe this year’s remap is vulnerable to legal attack on behalf of white voters.

Jorge Sanchez, senior litigator in MALDEF’s Chicago office, argues the City Council has practically invited a lawsuit by mapping more residents into white-dominated North Side wards than into black-dominated South Side wards.

Sanchez said that could be interpreted as violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution in that North Side voters will be under-represented on the City Council in comparison to South Side voters.

The issue revolves around the very purpose of redistricting after a census: to reallocate the population into equal districts to meet the principle of one man, one vote.

If Chicago’s population of 2,695,598 were divided equally among the 50 wards, each would have a population of 53,912.

Under the map approved by the City Council, however, South Side wards were generally below the 53,912 “target” while North Side wards exceeded it.

For instance, the most populous ward under the new configuration is the 43rd Ward in Lincoln Park with 56,170 residents while the least populous is the 5th Ward, which includes Hyde Park and portions of South Shore and Grand Crossing, with 51,455.

By making the North Side wards slightly larger and South Side wards slightly smaller, aldermen were able to preserve 18 African-American wards despite a population loss of 181,453 during the past decade.

Burton Odelson, who represented the City Council’s Black Caucus in the remap negotiations, said he expects no lawsuit to be filed, and that if one were brought under the issue raised by Sanchez, it would fail.

“That would not fly at all,” Odelson said, arguing the population variations between the wards are well within the 10 percent “deviation” the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled to be valid when trying to ensure fair minority representation — as required under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Sanchez agreed the Supreme Court normally doesn’t balk at the population spreads seen in this year’s Chicago ward remap, but said the court has held those same deviations can be a problem if they correspond to race, as is arguably the situation here.

“I believe that as long as these deviations exist anyone with an ax to grind has a credible threat to bring suit to challenge the map, and I believe it is likely such a suit would be successful,” Sanchez wrote in an internal MALDEF memo provided to me.

It may occur to you that MALDEF, a champion of minority rights, would never bring such a case. You are correct.

That raises the question of why they would even talk about it. The obvious answer is they don’t like the map — or the shabby process by which it was enacted without ever having been shown to the public.

MALDEF isn’t discussing its own legal strategy in response to the ward map, except to say it will be studying it closely.

Sanchez said the organization has no objection to the preservation of 18 African-American majority wards. But a clear point of contention is the 13th Ward, domain of Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, which MALDEF believes should have been allotted a larger Hispanic voting age population under the new map.

As far for an equal protection clause challenge, Sanchez said it would not take an expert in the specialized field of voting rights cases to take it to court.

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), whose ward took the worst abuse in the remap, said he’s considering his legal options, too.

Fioretti said he received many calls Friday from supporters telling him, “if you file a lawsuit, we want to be a part of it.”

You can expect this issue to gain steam as more residents wake to the reality they’ve been assigned a new alderman.

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