State Supreme Court rejects Democrats challenge on redistricting

PHOENIX -- The state Supreme Court blew apart the last hope of Democrats to get legislative districts they find more favorable in the next election -- and possibly take control of the House or Senate.

In a 31-page decision, the justices rejected every challenge made by a coalition of Democrats and Hispanics to the lines drawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, writing for the majority, said the five-member panel followed all the required laws and procedures to determine how districts should be created.

Most significantly, the justices rejected a contention by the Arizona Minority Coalition for Fair Redistricting that the commission, created by voters in 2000, did not give sufficient consideration to a legal requirement that they do what they can to create politically competitive districts. These are districts where the number of registered Democrats and Republicans is sufficiently close so that a candidate from either party has a reasonable chance of getting elected.

Attorney Paul Eckstein argued that the commission could have created at least seven districts -- out of the 30 in the state -- where Democrats had a chance of winning rather than the four in the plan.

Those additional seats in some prior years actually could have given the Democrats an equal number of seats with Republicans in both the House and Senate, as it might have in 2010 had the Supreme Court decided otherwise.

The ruling also has implications beyond next year: It says the new commission, which will be formed after the 2010 census to set district lines for the next decade, need not give more weight to creating competitive districts than the existing commission did.

Attorney Paul Eckstein who represents the challengers said Wednesday's ruling leaves only one option for those who believe the commission should have created more competitive districts:

Ask voters to alter the law. And two former lawmakers are weighing an initiative to put a requirement to create politically competitive districts ahead of other considerations.

The 2000 initiative scrapped the system used since statehood where legislators drew boundaries every decade for not only their own seats but also for congressional districts.

It requires the commission to create legislative and congressional districts that are generally equal in popular. The districts also must be "geographically compact and contiguous,' must "respect communities of interest' to the extent possible, and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act which precludes changes that dilute minority voting strength.

It also requires that "to the extent practicable, competitive districts should be favored where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals.'

Commission Chairman Steve Lynn of Tucson said that means the other criteria are more important. Based on that, the panel created just four competitive legislative districts.

The majority rejected alternatives, one crafted by the panel's two Democrats and the other by the coalition, each which would have created seven competitive districts.

But McGregor said the record shows the commission did what the law requires: create competitive districts as long as that did not interfere with other goals. The fact that proposals for more competitive districts were presented to and rejected by the commission, she said, is legally irrelevant.

"Even if we accepted those assertions as true, the fact that a 'better' plan exists does not establish that this plan lacks a reasonable basis,' she wrote. "Although the commission's decisions may be debatable, the coalition did not show that no reasonable commission would have adopted this plan.'

The court also rejected arguments that the commission should have used what challengers said was a better methodology to determine if districts are competitive. But McGregor said the question of which method would be best is beyond the scope of what courts can consider.

Two of the justices said they found some fault with the way the commission handled the process. But they concluded there was not enough time left for the commission could come up with new lines for next year's election.


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