Columns | Northwest Herald

Eye On Illinois: After 50 years, state shakes federal hiring oversight

If you don’t know the name Michael Shakman, that could indicate you don’t inordinately obsess over Illinois politics.

If you are familiar with Shakman, you know there’s no way to adequately summarize his influence over the past half century.

Shakman has been lead plaintiff on lawsuits against the various state officials since 1969. Along with Paul Lurie, he has convinced federal judges to enact consent decrees leading to court-appointment monitors to get ahead of violations of federal laws that forbid political discrimination for government hiring.

Those efforts finally hit a wall last week when the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ended 50 years of federal oversight.

“In no way are we saying that the risk of unlawful political patronage no longer exists within Illinois,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote, with concurrence from Judge Frank Easterbrook. “Of course it does: nobody is naive to the state’s embarrassing history.”

However, the opinion continued, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “administration supported and instituted new remedial measures to account for past abusive practices and to help prevent their recurrence.” Incumbent Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker “has sufficiently satisfied the aims of the 1972 decree and put in place adequate measures to avoid future constitutional violations.”

To read the 17-page opinion, visit

The ruling is a victory for states’ rights advocates, as the judges found no Constitutional basis for the federal government to wield this power over Illinois in perpetuity. In other words, the purpose of a consent decree is using federal muscle to correct an identified state problem and make sure Constitutional rights are protected (in this case, the right to not have your political affiliation held against you when applying for a public sector job).

Consent decrees aren’t supposed to continue indefinitely or be amended to justify their extension. It may well have taken 50 years for Illinois to get its act together, but there has to be an end point, otherwise we’ve just invented a new layer of government.

“Continued application has put a federal court in a role tantamount to serving as an indefinite institutional monitor,” Scudder wrote, “not much different than an executive or legislative branch oversight agency.”

The judges didn’t close the door on future litigation, a wise move given every state office ultimately has an elected official atop the organizational chart. Those involved in hiring should study the Comprehensive Employment Plan and stick close to the inspector general’s office, which has a new hiring and employment division. Prospective and current government employees should make sure they understand their First Amendment rights and what constitutes infringement.

And experienced attorneys, like Shakman, should be ready to file a fresh complaint if they get a whiff of anything fishy.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at