New Judicial Subcircuits Cause Concern Locally; ILGOP Says Dems Are Attempting to Pack the Courts

By Benjamin Cox on January 16, 2022 at 12:34pm

Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill creating judicial subcircuits on January 7th for the 7th Judicial Circuit among many others. The bill creates a subcircuit for each of the counties (Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan, and Scott), a subcircuit for the City of Springfield, and an additional subcircuit for Sangamon County.

95th District Republican Representative Tim Butler of Springfield pointed out during the floor discussion of the bill that the Illinois Senate sponsor of the bill, Senate President Don Harmon, is the chair of the Cook County slating committee for circuit courts and that Harmon was likely receiving input from former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also sits on the Cook County slating committee.

Harmon and Illinois Democrats say that the subcircuits will provide an attempt to create diversity on the bench. According to 2020 Census data, Scott County was 96.2% white, Greene County was 95.8% white, Jersey County 93.9%, Macoupin 93.6%, and Morgan County was 87.4% white. According to an article last week in the State Journal Register, the 7th Circuit has never had a person of color elected to the bench. Despite the lack of a person of color on the bench, the 7th Judicial Circuit did see a major increase in all minority populations in the 2020 Census. Butler says that despite the lack of diversity in the population there is nothing prohibiting a person of color for running to be or winning a circuit judge spot. In fact, he says he’s in favor of it happening, but no person of color has run in his recent memory.

Butler is still not convinced of the opportunity for diversity, saying Illinois Democrats are attempting to pack the courts with liberal justices to support their recent agenda: “What Democrats are trying to do is…reshuffle existing subcircuits across the state where they exist and create new subcircuits in areas they didn’t exist including places like Morgan and Sangamon counties to really try to elect more Democratic judges.”

Morgan County Judge Chris Reif told the Journal Courier last week that the bill came as a surprise to him, and that there was very little input asked from local sitting circuit judges and attorneys on how it will affect local court systems.

State Representative C.D. Davidsmeyer told the Journal Courier that he foresees state Democrats passing a trailer bill to clear up remaining confusion on the number of judges in certain areas and how the number of judges will be determined. He called the bill “rushed” and partisan.

The changes go into effect in 2024. Three judges would be elected from the first subcircuit, which includes most of Springfield. Three would be from the second subcircuit covering the rest of Sangamon County. One judge would be elected at-large and one would be elected from each of the five other counties in the entire 7th circuit.

The Pontiac Daily Leader reports that the bill also redraws judicial subcircuits in Cook County for the first time since 1991 as well as subcircuits in Kane, McHenry, and Will counties for the first time since they were originally enacted in 2005. It would also increase the number of subcircuits in Cook County to 20 from 15 so that as judges who are currently elected countywide retire, they would be replaced by judges elected from subcircuits. The same would be true for Lake County, where the proposal would double the number of subcircuits from six to 12. The 17th Circuit, which covers Winnebago and Boone counties, the bill calls for consolidating four subcircuits into two. The bill also creates subcircuits for the first time in DuPage County, the state’s second-largest county, while establishing a “resident judge” model in Champaign, Peoria and Rock Island counties, which are all part of multi-county circuits. That means judges in those counties would be elected from within the county rather than from the entire circuit. Similar changes are proposed for the 3rd Circuit, which includes Madison and Bond counties.