Dan Walters

Rejection of redistricting challenge is a break for initiative process

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

But the fun – months of chattering by political cognoscenti about the possibility that the Legislature could regain its power to redraw congressional districts – ended Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 in an Arizona case, affirmed the constitutionality of having districts drawn by an independent commission after each decennial census.

The Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature had challenged the validity of its commission, citing the Constitution’s election clause, which says, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”

“The history and purpose of the (elections) clause weigh heavily against precluding the people of Arizona from creating a commission operating independently of the state legislature to establish congressional districts,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, which included Californian Anthony Kennedy.

“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.”

While Arizona Republicans wanted to regain their power to draw districts, had they won, it would have been a victory of sorts for the California Legislature’s Democratic majority.

Democrats could have reconfigured California’s 53 districts to increase their already overwhelming, 39-14 majority and/or shore up about a half-dozen of their incumbents who may be vulnerable under certain circumstances.

There was also much speculation that Democratic legislators would make life difficult for House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield by altering his district.

But all of the speculative verbiage is now just dust in the wind because the validity of California’s redistricting commission has been affirmed.

The hard-core redistricting junkies can return to cogitating over what might happen after the 2020 census.

Monday’s ruling also puts to rest the danger that had the Arizona Legislature prevailed, using the initiative to enact other state election reforms – such as California’s top-two primary system – would be at risk.

California’s drives for independent redistricting and the top-two primary have been aimed largely at affecting the makeup of the Legislature by reducing partisan polarization and electing more compromise-minded centrists. And they appear to be having that effect.

In fact, the decision touches on that issue, saying, “Banning lawmaking by initiative to direct a state’s method of apportioning congressional districts would not just stymie attempts to curb gerrymandering. It would also cast doubt on numerous other time, place, and manner regulations governing federal elections that states have adopted by the initiative method.”