WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that a voter-approved independent redistricting commission in Arizona is constitutional. The conservative wing of the court was in the minority.
In response to complaints that the state legislature was engaging in partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, Arizona voters approved an independent commission to draw district lines in a 2000 ballot initiative. The commission has two Republicans and two Democrats, who legislative leaders choose from a list composed by the state’s Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, in addition to a chairman who may not be a member of either party.
Republican legislators sued after the 2012 election, arguing that they shouldn’t be completely cut out of the district-drawing process.
The case before the Supreme Court — Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission — hinged on one word: “legislature.” It arose out of a debate over the Constitution’s elections clause, which dictates that the “times, places, and manner” of federal elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
In oral arguments before the court in early March, the court’s four more conservative justices, plus Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing vote, seemed skeptical of the commission’s argument that “legislature” can also mean the legislative process, including ballot initiatives.
But in its decision, the court’s majority, including Kennedy, wrote that overturning the independent commission would go against the spirit of the elections clause.
“The Elections Clause permits the people of Arizona to provide for redistricting by independent commission,” the decision read. “The history and purpose of the Clause weigh heavily against precluding the people of Arizona from creating a commission operating independently of the state legislature to establish congressional districts. Such preclusion would also run up against the Constitution’s animating principle that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.”
The decision continued: “The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process in which the people’s legislative power is coextensive with the state legislature’s authority, but the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power. It would thus be perverse to interpret ‘Legislature’ in the Elections Clause to exclude lawmaking by the people, particularly when such lawmaking is intended to advance the prospect that Members of Congress will in fact be ‘chosen… by the People of the several States.'”