Supreme Court Will Rule In AZ Redistricting Case Monday—Here’s What You Need to Know

Chances are good you’re still celebrating today’s landmark same-sex marriage ruling and Thursday’s Obamacare victory, but the U.S. Supreme Court still has a few major cases to resolve, including a really important one about redistricting powers that will directly affect Arizona residents.

We won’t pretend that the redistricting of voting boundaries is an inherently sexy topic—even the name of the case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, is snooze-worthy. But how districts are drawn and who gets to control the process is something of the utmost importance. And because the outcome of this case will set national precedence, the ramifications of a ruling either way will be felt for a very, very long time.

So here is what you need to know about the case in plain English: how it came to be, what’s at stake, and what the outcome could mean for the future. 

Every 10 years, following the national census, Arizona redraws its two voting district maps—one for the nine U.S. Congressional delegates, and one for the 90 state legislators. Until 2000, the job of delineating districts fell on the state Legislature to figure out.

But since elected officials in this state are almost always Republicans, some people started getting upset that one party held all of the redistricting power and could manipulate boundaries to benefit their own party and retain control. (This process is called gerrymandering.)

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 106, which took away the map-drawing power from the Legislature and gave it to an independent bi-partisan group called the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The AIRC is comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent, and is tasked with deciding voter districts based the following criteria:
  • That the boundaries of both congressional and legislative districts be “contiguous, geographically compact, and respect communities of interest—all to the extent practicable;” 
  • That district lines follow “visible geographic features, city, town, and county boundaries, and undivided census tracts;” 
  • And perhaps most importantly, that "competitive districts be favored where doing so would not significantly detract from the goals above.”
In 2000, 56 percent of Arizona voted in favor of adopting Proposition 106, and in 2001, new maps were produced. According to Steve Muratore, former Arizona Capital Times reporter and founder of the Arizona Eagletarian, the people in charge did not do a very good job, as evidenced by the fact that Republicans gained a super-majority in the Legislature by the end of the decade. “That unbalanced leverage of power didn’t accurately reflect the actual power they had in terms of voter registration,” he says.

Put simply: the number of registered Democrats was not reflected in the election results—somewhat comparable to how a presidential candidate who wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College loses the entire election.

Following the 2010 census, a new AIRC was selected, and mapping consultants submitted bids for the job of drawing the new lines. A different group of consultants was selected this time, infuriating many Republicans and Tea Party members who saw this group as too pro-Democrat. Republicans were scared of losing power and appealed to the state attorney general and governor to fire the AIRC members—which happened, but then the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated them.

“If right-wing extremists are in charge of drawing our districts, Arizona Democrats will be the first on the chopping block,” —Ruben Gallego

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The Legislature filed a legal complaint against the AIRC on June 7, 2012. It argued that Proposition 106—and thus, the AIRC—violates the Constitution, which says that “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for . . . Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”

In February 2014, a three-judge panel ruled 2:1 that the AIRC is legal: “the term legislature” as used in the Elections Clause encompasses a state’s entire legislative process, and thus, Prop. 106 does not violate [it],” the decision states.

The Legislature appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in October 2014, the court agreed to hear the case. On Monday morning, the court will announce its decision.

At the heart of the case is a question about what, exactly, our founding fathers meant by the word "legislature." Did they mean the specific law-making body, or did they mean the entirety of our democratic institution (which would include allowing citizens to make laws by initiative/proposition and by referendum)?

Muratore thinks it will be a close vote, but whichever way the court rules, the impact will be huge. Either it rules in favor of the AIRC like the lower courts did, and Arizona can continue to use an independent commission to draw election maps to help ensure minority populations (which tend to vote Democratic) get a fair say and representation. Or the court rules that “legislature” is a term that literally means the law-making body, and the Arizona Republican-dominated Legislature redraws the map to favor the party.

“The Republicans know that they can disregard the will of the people to the extent that they can manipulate voting districts,” Muratore says.

“If right-wing extremists are in charge of drawing our districts, Arizona Democrats will be the first on the chopping block,” an e-mail from U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego says.

As it stands, the only other state to have a fully independent redistricting commission is California—meaning Monday’s outcome directly affects that body’s legality, too—but at least 24 other states have election commissions that are partially independent or that exist in case of a gridlock.

Those who hope the court rules in favor of AIRC also point out that a decision the other way could end up rendering other commissions unconstitutional —  and prevent the people from having the power to use voter initiatives as a check on their elected leaders.

Shortly after Proposition 106 passed, Jim Pederson, chair of the "Fair Districts, Fair Elections" ballot initiative, was quoted as saying that “every once in a while, an issue comes along that makes so much sense and so clearly embodies the basic principles of democracy, people put aside their partisan differences and take action to protect the collective interest of citizen self-government.

“The Citizen's Redistricting Commission Initiative is such an issue. A simple idea about giving citizens a central role in creating more representative democracy with so much common sense appeal that it enjoys the support of Arizonans statewide.”

We’ll keep you posted on Monday’s outcome…

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser