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Supreme Court to hear Arizona lawmakers’ redistricting challenge

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Thursday it will hear the Arizona Legislature’s challenge to a voter-passed law that gave an independent, nonpartisan commission – not lawmakers – the power to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries.

Lower courts have rejected the claim by Republican lawmakers that it is unconstitutional for an unelected body to draw district lines, a duty that they say the Elections Clause of the Constitution reserves for legislatures.

That led to the appeal to the Supreme Court, which said Thursday it would hear the case. No hearing date has been set.

Republican legislative leaders welcomed the court’s decision as “good news for every Arizonan.”

“This case presents the question of whether that (redistricting) authority can be removed from the Legislature and given to an unelected commission,” said Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, in a statement. “We are pleased the court has decided to address this matter.”

An attorney for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission said commissioners would have preferred that the court affirm the lower courts’ rulings, but they hope that it will ultimately uphold Arizona voters’ right to establish independent redistricting.

“We have precedent on our side, we have the constitutional history on our side,” said Mary O’Grady, lead counsel for the commission. “We’ll wait and see what the court decides, but we are hopeful that we’ll prevail on the merits if the court reaches the merits.”

The case is expected to have a significant impact on redistricting in states around the country that have set up commissions similar to Arizona’s.

“This is a really important case that has profound implications across the country,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel in the national office of Common Cause.

That organization supported Proposition 106, the Arizona ballot initiative that created the independent redistricting commission 14 years ago.

Supporters of independent redistricting panels say that allowing lawmakers to draw the lines of their own districts amounts to what Spaulding called “the foxes guarding the hen house.”

“It’s a situation where this process – gerrymandering – allows politicians to pick their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians,” he said.

The Constitution requires that states redraw congressional boundaries after every decennial census so that the number of voters in each district is roughly equal to others.

That had been done by lawmakers until voters passed Proposition 106 as an amendment to the Arizona Constitution in 2000. The amendment established the commission that drew new districts for the 2002 elections and again for the 2012 elections, to reflect population changes in the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Both times, the commission solicited public input and held hearings before coming up with final district plans.

O’Grady said the belief that independent commissions do a better job at redistricting than politicians can be seen in the state’s congressional district map.

“We have some of the most competitive congressional districts in the country as a result of our independent redistricting process,” she said.

Commissioners are volunteers, four of whom are appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, with the fifth and final member selected by the preceding four.

Spaulding said the case will affect six states, including Arizona, that have vested the power to draw legislative and congressional lines with citizen commissions, rather than with their legislatures. Besides Arizona, the states are Alaska, California Idaho, Montana and Washington.

“The stakes are enormous for the integrity of our democracy and we will be watching it closely,” Spaulding said.