EDWARDSVILLE – Madison County’s board members expressed their anger Friday morning at the Illinois General Assembly-approved legislation creating judicial subcategories in Madison County, calling it a “power robbery” by the democratically controlled legislature.
The bill, which changes the election of judges in some Illinois counties, was approved by state lawmakers late Wednesday night without notice. It was signed by Governor JB Pritzker Friday.
“It’s a sad day when lawmakers override the will of voters,” said Mike Walters, R-Godfrey, chairman of the Madison County Board’s judiciary.
“As Madison County keeps getting redder, state lawmakers decide to change our judicial boundaries,” he said. “What these three counties have in common is that they are all Republican counties.”
House Bill 3138 creates four judicial subdistricts in the 3rd judicial district, which includes the Madison and Bond counties, and the 7th district in Sangamon and surrounding counties and the DuPage district. The bill also changes partial counties in Cook, Kane, McHenry and Will counties.
The bill originally dealt with court security and was introduced to the House of Representatives in February 2021 by State Representative Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, and sponsored in the Senate by Senator Rachelle Crowe, D-Glen Carbon.
On January 5, the bill was amended by state Senate President Dan Harmon, D-Oak Park, before being approved in a party line vote in both houses on Wednesday.
The proposal, presented on the first day of the 2022 General Assembly session, seemed to take Republican lawmakers by surprise. They argued that during the House and Senate Redistricting Committee public hearings in recent months, little focus had been placed on creating additional subcategories outside Cook County.
However, Democrats said the idea had been on the table long since the General Assembly passed law requiring redrawing of existing sub-circles after the 2020 census.
“The law doesn’t require any action in these other counties, but it has sparked discussion of sub-circles across the board,” Harmon said during a committee hearing.
Harmon said the proposal does not add new judges to the state’s trial court system, and only changes the way some judges are elected. Most of the changes would not take effect until the 2024 elections.
In Madison County, however, the bill will have an impact on the 2022 election cycle, which begins Jan. 13 with the circulation of nomination petitions.
State representative Amy Elik, R-Fosterburg, rejected the law.
“The Democratic Legislature ‘s plan to create judicial subcategories in Madison County is about securing more Democratic judiciary,” Elik said in a statement released. “This plan brings more politics into the courtroom and seriously jeopardizes the fairness and integrity of the judiciary.”
The bill divides Madison County into three sub-districts, with Bond County being a separate sub-district.
In other counties, when sub-counties were set up, judges were elected in rotating order between counties, according to information released at the county committee meeting on Friday morning. According to the new law, the next three judges who fight for retention would come from the 1st part circle, then three from the 2nd part circle and two from the 3rd part circle.
The first sub-circle has been found to be heavily Democratic, the second somewhat divided, and the third rural and republican.
At the committee meeting on Friday, Senior District Judge Williams Mudge stated that two incumbent District Judges – Amy Sholar and Christopher Threlkeld – must now move to run in order to retain their seats. It was also advised that they would have to move before the nomination petitions went into circulation next week, January 13th.
“If you want to run for these positions, you have to move,” said Mudge.
Mudge has tried to stay out of the political debate on the issue. On Thursday, he emailed a response to questions about the bill to multiple media outlets.
“Under the Illinois Constitution, the makeup of the judiciary is a legislative matter, not that of the courts,” he said. “HB 3138 is a comprehensive bill that looks at the creation or amendment of sub-districts in numerous counties and counties across the state, including the third judicial district.”
It does not affect the number of district judge positions or the sitting of elected district judges or retention races, but it “comes into play in the election of district judges for both current and future judges’ positions”.
“There are currently no district judges living within the new first sub-district,” said Mudge. “The next three positions are chosen from the second sub-circle. The following two posts will be filled by the third subdistrict and a judge will be elected from Bond County, currently being filled by Judge Chris Bauer. “
Mudge said where the judges are from won’t affect service.
“Regardless of where the judges are located, they will all preside over our county seat courts and administer justice as they always have,” he said.
Other district officials waded into the political aspects.
“It’s an insult to every judge, every citizen,” said Walters. “This is a takeover. That’s the wrong thing about politics. “
Walters said this is not the first time bills have been hijacked by local lawmakers and used to reduce political power in favor of other counties or agencies. He cited 2019 bills that represented Madison County and passed them on to other local governments, particularly those relating to the Bi-State Development Agency and the Metro East Sanitary District.
Madison County’s board members Mike Babcock, R-Bethalto, and Jamie Goggin, R-Edwardsville, were also very critical of the legislation. Member Eric Foster, R-Granite City, asked if local officials, including Mudge, had been consulted.
Both Mudge and Madison County Circuit Clerk Tom McRae said it did not.
At Friday’s meeting, several board members said they wanted a special session of the district board to consider action on the matter. On Friday afternoon, Madison chairman Kurt Prenzler said no meeting was called.
Prenzler also criticized the General Assembly, saying the General Assembly’s action this week was a reminder of the actions they had taken regarding MESD and bi-state.