PHOENIX - The attorney for Colleen Mathis is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn her ouster as chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission.
Paul Charlton contends there was no legal basis for the claim by Gov. Jan Brewer that his client is guilty of gross misconduct, making the 21-6 vote late Tuesday by the state Senate to ratify the governor's action illegal.
Charlton is weighing whether to try to block efforts to replace her while the legal issues are debated. He said he may seek a court order allowing Mathis to remain on the commission in the interim.
That is virtually certain to provoke a fight from the Legislature.
If Mathis stays on, it frees her to vote with the two Democrats on the five-member panel to give final approval to the maps drawn for the state's nine congressional and 30 legislative districts - the same maps Brewer and Republican lawmakers contend are legally flawed. And once that happens, it becomes more difficult for foes to undo them.
Brewer, however, does not intend to back down. Press aide Matthew Benson said she was legally entitled to do what she did.
"The constitution specifically prescribes an oversight role for the governor and the state Senate when it comes to the redistricting process," he said, allowing the governor to remove any commission member guilty of gross misconduct.
"The governor has to make specific allegations to the IRC member," he explained. "They're allowed to respond."
"And if the governor finds gross misconduct or neglect of duty, then she can remove the member as long as she has a two-thirds vote of the state Senate."
That vote strictly followed party lines, with all 21 Republicans backing the governor, while six Democrats voted no and three, Jack Jackson Jr. of Window Rock and Tucsonans Linda Lopez and Olivia Cajero Bedford, skipped the session
"The letter of the law has been followed here," Benson said.
One of the charges is that Mathis, a Tucsonan and the sole political independent on the panel, violated the state's Open Meeting Law based on comments by other commissioners that she called them ahead of a meeting in an effort to line up votes to award a contract to Strategic Telemetry.
Mathis, in her response to Brewer, denied doing anything improper.
She said any conversations with other commissioners over the contract was based on her role as the agency's chief procurement officer, obligating her to "pursue consensus among the commissioners."
Mathis told Brewer she considered "achieving consensus" on whichever mapping consultant vendor was selected to be "important for installing public confidence in our process."
But Charlton said the legal issue is even more basic: The commission believes the Open Meeting Law does not apply to its work. At the very least, Charlton said, it's an open question, pointing out that the applicability of the law is currently before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dean Fink.
Another charge is that the maps the commission crafted do not comply with constitutional requirements, such as keeping "communities of interest" in the same districts. Charlton said that's not for Brewer to decide.
"Any issue regarding the drawing of the maps should be before the courts and not before the Legislature," he said. "That's why the public passed the law that puts this in the hands of the Independent Redistricting Commission."
But Benson responded nothing in the constitutional amendment creating the commission says "first you have to get the OK from a judge" before removing a commissioner.
How quickly, or whether, the court will act is unclear.
Commission attorney Mary O'Grady tried to get the Supreme Court to block the ouster late Tuesday. But by the time she got the case in front of one of the justices, the Senate already had voted, making her request for a restraining order legally moot.
Charlton said he and O'Grady will now work together to get the court to declare the removal illegal.
Time could soon become an issue.
With a vacancy - for now - a screening panel will begin accepting applications from political independents, reviewing them and scheduling interviews to decide whom they should nominate to fill the slot.
The final decision is left to the other four commissioners, two of whom were appointed by elected Democrats and two by top GOP legislative leaders.
Charlton said that the outcome of the legal dispute over removing a commission member is important for whoever is named the independent chairperson of the commission.
"You can only imagine what kind of an 'independent' chair the next one will be, knowing that it's easy to gather 20 votes any time you draw a map that makes the governor and Republicans unhappy," he said.
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