Supreme Court Upholds Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission – Posted: 06/29/2015 10:28 am EDT Updated: 06/29/2015 11:59 am EDT

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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.'”

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Supreme Court To Weigh Power Of Redistricting Commissions – Nina Totenberg MARCH 02, 2015 4:02 AM ET

Take a look at a congressional district map, and it can look like a madman’s jigsaw puzzle. The reason is, in part, that the district lines are drawn by state legislators seeking to maximize partisan advantage. It’s a process that critics say is responsible for much that’s wrong with Washington.

Arizona state Sen. Andy Biggs flips through redistricting maps during a special legislative committee hearing to discuss the state commission's proposed maps in 2011.

Arizona state Sen. Andy Biggs flips through redistricting maps during a special legislative committee hearing to discuss the state commission’s proposed maps in 2011. Ross D. Franklin/AP

That’s why some states have tried setting up independent commissions to draw the map. Arizona voters created such a commission in 2000. But when the commission chair displeased the governor and state Senate, they tried, unsuccessfully, to remove her.

The power of the commission to draw district lines has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which could hand that power back to the legislators in Arizona, California, and a dozen other states.

Although the Supreme Court has viewed partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts as a bad practice that deprives citizens of fair representation, the court has also thrown up its hands when it comes to policing the practice. The reason is simple: the justices have been unable to come up with neutral and judicially-manageable rules for drawing electoral boundaries. So, in recent years, some states have been experimenting with independent commissions.

The commissions vary in form and in how much influence they allow incumbents to have in drawing their own districts.

Arizona’s independent commission presents the test case before the Supreme Court on Monday. Fifteen years ago the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that amended the state constitution to put the decennial redistricting in the hands of an independent, five-person commission. Two of the commissioners were to be Republicans, two Democrats, and the commission’s chair was to be an Independent.

In a state with 35 percent registered Republicans, 35 percent Independents, and 30 percent Democrats, the congressional map the commission drew after the 2010 census had four safe Republican seats, two safe Democratic seats, and three competitive districts.

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