December 05, 2022


Nowlan: Explaining how the The Deal works

Jim Nowlan

Here’s The Deal: Lawyers and judges elevated to the Illinois Supreme Court by the Judicial Nominating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party are allowed to be the best jurists they can be on 90% to 95% of the cases before them. But, on any cases affecting the party, such as redistricting reform, they must commit themselves to protect the party.

That’s The Deal: A good, prestigious job, with a great pension, all in return for turning a blind eye to Lady Justice on those infrequent political cases that affect the party and its interests, such as pensions, term limits and gerrymandering. Most wannabe jurists consider it worth the trade. They wouldn’t be offered the judgeship if they didn’t.

The Deal is never spoken, of course, in the best tradition of indicted ex-House Speaker Mike Madigan, a state lawmaker for more than half a century and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois for years. Winks and nods speak volumes.

And for three decades, indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke chaired the party’s Judicial Nominating Committee. Burke was to the political manner born, you might say. His father was a powerful alderman of long standing. Ed himself has been on the Chicago City Council for more than half a century and, like Madigan, also a Democratic ward committeeman in Chicago, for seemingly forever.

Along the granite corridors of Chicago’s City Hall, everyone still doffs his cap to Ed, with a “Good morning, Mr. Chairman” (a reference to Burke’s longtime, now ex-chairmanship of the council’s powerful Finance Committee, which has wide-ranging powers, far beyond finance).

The Deal was in obvious play in 2016, when the four Democrats on the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court blocked a constitutional amendment petition drive signed by 600,000 Illinois voters. Petitioners sought to put on the ballot a proposal that legislative redistricting be conducted by an independent commission. Surveys showed 80% of voters supported independent mapping.

But no. In a blatantly partisan opinion, Justice Tom Kilbride wrote that the amendment was unconstitutional, preventing voters from having their say. His ludicrous reasoning: The proposal gave some responsibilities to the Illinois auditor general, a constitutional officer of the legislature, and the auditor lacked the staff to carry out such responsibilities. This, as if modest staffing issues supersede the state constitution, rather than the other way around.

Insiders tell me one of the two female justices on the court, Chief Justice Anne Burke (wife of, guess who? see above) or Mary Jane Theis, had doubts about the opinion, but ultimately caved to The Deal. Both came up through the system of The Deal.

Nor did opinion author Kilbride recuse himself from hearing the case, even though it was argued before him by Mike Kasper, treasurer of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and Madigan’s elections lawyer. And even though the party had just a few years earlier contributed more than $1.5 million to his successful retention bid. Only in Illinois.

So now, Illinois has among the most preposterously contorted legislative districts in the nation, a disservice to democracy, and to all 8 million Illinois registered voters.

This November we can expunge The Deal by electing justices who have no ties to the Burke-Madigan axis of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

• Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.