Cook County judge considers term limits

June 18, 2014

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
File: Voters wait to cast their ballots in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood in 2012.

A Cook County judge heard oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging two efforts seeking to change how the Illinois political system operates. The two separate ballot initiatives would ask voters to weigh in on everything from adding term limits for state legislators to how legislative districts are drawn.

Challenging the two petition drives are the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and the Business Leadership Council, as well as a number of individuals. They include former ComEd CEO Frank Clark and housing developer Elzie Higginbottom.

The challengers  are represented by Richard Prendergast and Mike Kasper, an attorney who has also represented the Democratic Party of Illinois and Rahm Emanuel, although Emanuel and Michael Madigan, the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and chairman of the state Democratic Party, are not parties on the lawsuit.

Prendergast told Cook County Judge Mary Mikva in a hearing Wednesday that the state Supreme Court rejected a previous attempt to add term limits. He argued the effort goes against the Illinois constitution, which states that “amendments shall be limited to structural and procedural subjects.”

To help it stand on firm legal footing, the term limit initiative also includes other components besides limiting a lawmaker from holding office more than eight years. It also reduces the number of Illinois state senators while slightly increasing the number of state representatives and increases the number of votes needed to override a governor’s veto.

Prendergast equated those other provisions to “ornaments” on a Christmas tree to please the judge. He said voters may struggle with the ballot question, since a voter could support term limits but oppose a reduction in state senators, and that those topics should be separate questions.

But Mark Campbell, a spokesman for the committee trying to get term limits on the ballot, said it’s within the limits the Illinois Supreme Court set when they ruled against a term limit initiative 20 years ago.

“What we did was specifically outlined by the Supreme Court as to what the requirements are to get on the ballot and we are very confident that our initiative, as written, does pass muster.”

Bruce Rauner, the Republican nominee for Illinois governor, backs the term limits initiative.  But the elections board is continuing to review the effort to create a bipartisan panel to draw legislative district boundaries, rather than having the boundaries drawn by political parties. Legislative boundaries are redrawn after each census.

The redistricting process was also before Judge Mikva Wednesday in the same lawsuit, with similar legal arguments from both sides. Kasper argued that ballot initiative would take away power from the governor, the attorney general and lawmakers, in addition to altering the eligibility of judges.

“Anything that’s directly related to the purpose of the amendment, which is to alter the redistricting and to make it non-partisan, which these conflict of interest rules are, is fair game,” said Michelle Odorizzi, an attorney for the redistricting ballot initiative.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics. Follow him @tonyjarnold.