The U.S. Supreme Court ended an extraordinary 2015 session by affirming citizens’ power to restrict legislators’ power to abuse theirs.
By a 5-4 margin, the justices on Monday rejected a claim by the Arizona Legislature that the U.S. Constitution bars voter-approved independent citizens’ commissions from drawing congressional district lines. If the court had ruled otherwise, California’s own commission would have fallen.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican who as the court’s one Californian appreciates this state’s history of initiatives, sided with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and three other appointees of Democratic presidents.
The case turned on the definition of “legislature” in the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause says state legislatures determine the times, places and manner of elections. Ginsburg offered a more expansive definition of meaning of legislature to include laws approved by voters.
“The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process in which the people of a State exercise legislative power coextensive with the authority of an institutional legislature,” Ginsburg wrote. “But the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.”
Too often, wealthy interests try to seize direct democracy and manipulate voters. But initiatives remain the one sure way in which voters can take control when legislators fail to act in the public’s interest.
Legislators never willingly cede the power to draw district lines for themselves and their friends. They simply cannot resist the impulse to maintain power by using redistricting to choose their voters.
The compulsion is bipartisan. Republicans would mess with Democrats in Arizona. Without an independent commission in California, Democratic legislators could carve new Democratic seats from areas represented by Republicans.
One wealthy individual, Charles T. Munger Jr., saw the need for fair redistricting and funded initiatives to bring it about. For that, he deserves thanks. If Munger’s self-interest is involved, it’s not apparent to us.
Munger is a partisan Republican, but California Republicans have not fared well under the new boundaries. However, largely because of the fairer lines, California has 10 swing congressional districts, about a fourth of all swing districts in the nation.
Munger isn’t saying yet whether he’d help other states create citizen commissions. But if activists in other states see the benefit of competitive congressional districts, they can proceed knowing that the high court has upheld the legality of citizen redistricting commissions. They could do worse.