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Split within Democratic Party is basis of latest challenge to ward map: Brown

Updated: February 15, 2014 6:33AM

When a federal judge last summer dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the city’s new ward map, some people probably thought that was the end of the matter.

But a pair of public interest legal groups have now joined in an appeal that seeks to force the City Council to draw the boundaries again on the basis that the new map discriminates against Chicago’s political independents.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law along with Business and Professional People for the Public Interest have filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing in support of the League of Women Voters in its lawsuit against the city.

They contend U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman failed to acknowledge in her decision that “what matters in this city is the division between regular Democrats and independents,” rather than the usual split between Democrats and Republicans.

The League of Women Voters, which brought the lawsuit, accused the City Council of drawing an “incumbent protection” map that failed to equally apportion Chicago voters among the 50 wards — with the most populous ward having 4,715 more residents than the smallest.

They say that’s a violation of the basic “one man, one vote” principle under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In essence, the people in the less populous wards will have a fractionally greater voice on the City Council under this map than the people in the more populous wards.

The judge agreed with the city in finding the 8.7 percent population deviation was within the 10 percent deviation that courts have allowed.

But Paul Strauss and Alexander Polikoff, the lawyers who filed the amicus brief, say the judge failed to take into account that even a deviation of less than 10 percent can violate the law if done for “politically discriminatory purposes.”

In this case, they say the ward map was designed to target independent Democratic alderman, including a specific effort to eliminate Robert Fioretti (2nd) and Nicholas Sposato (36th).

Courts have held that political jurisdictions can sometimes violate the requirement for population equality if it’s being done for certain legitimate state interests.

But partisan political gain, which we normally think of in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, is not considered a legitimate interest.

In a city dominated almost exclusively by Democrats, that might not even seem to be a consideration — and so it may have appeared to the judge.

But Strauss and Polikoff are arguing that based on their groups’ “long experience as observers of Chicago politics,” they know it’s the internal divisions between Democrats that form the battle lines for our politics.

“Politics in Chicago is not between Democrats and Republicans, but rather between regular Democrats who support the mayor and independent Democrats who are willing to oppose the administration,” they state in their brief.

By drawing a map that screwed over the independents, in particular Fioretti and Sposato, the map is biased in favor of regular Democrats at the expense of the independents and their voters. That’s the gist of the argument, which when it comes right down to it, has the advantage of being what actually happened.

Look, I’ve always considered this lawsuit a longshot, although Thomas Geoghegan, the lawyer who originally filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters, would strenuously argue otherwise.

And I can’t honestly say that its chances are helped much if any by the intervention of these two respected organizations.

But the whole remap process — and the map it produced — remains such an irritation that I’m only too happy to highlight a legitimate effort to block it.

Chicago aldermen have already implemented the new map ahead of the 2015 elections, representing residents who did not elect them, all in an effort to get a jump on the upcoming campaign.

It would serve them right if the courts took it out of their hands.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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