Political cognoscenti know that the most important factor in determining which politician and party wins a congressional or a state legislative seat is how the district lines are drawn.
Six years ago, in response to the Legislature’s bipartisan gerrymander of California’s legislative and congressional districts, aimed at freezing the status quo and eliminating competition for seats, voters created an independent commission to redraw legislative districts, and those of the Board of Equalization.
Two years later, in another initiative, voters added congressional districts to the 14-member commission’s authority. After the 2010 census the commission, chosen by a complex process, conducted extensive public hearings and did its work, which became effective for the 2012 elections.
Politicians, academics and pundits are still analyzing how the commission functioned and whether its 177 maps were fairly drawn.
However, its legitimacy, at least regarding congressional districts, is at risk in a new case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court agreed last week to hear a challenge by the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature to the authority of that state’s independent redistricting commission, which also had been created by ballot initiative in 2000, to draw congressional districts because the U.S. Constitution places that power in state legislatures.
The issue is a section of the Constitution saying, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.”
A three-member federal court panel ruled – albeit, not unanimously – that the Constitution’s reference to the “Legislature” included ballot initiatives like the 2000 measure, thus upholding the commission’s authority.
“The elections clause does not prohibit a state from vesting the power to conduct congressional redistricting elsewhere within its legislative powers,” Judge G. Murray Snow wrote for the majority.
Were the Supreme Court – itself sharply divided by ideology – to uphold the Arizona Legislature’s challenge, not only would Arizona’s lawmakers regain the power to draw its congressional districts, but the decision would undoubtedly cancel out the California commission’s authority over a much-larger congressional delegation.
Conceivably, the Legislature could redraw the state’s 53 congressional districts for the 2016 elections and beyond, and its dominant Democrats (and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown) could widen their party’s already large margin of dominance.
The delegation now splits 38-15 in favor of Democrats, but Republicans may gain a seat or two this year.
A new set of maps would likely erase those GOP gains, if they materialize, and touch off a scramble among Democratic state legislators for the extra seats.