PHOENIX — A Republican claim of bias in the legislative redistricting process does not stand up under scrutiny, according to an attorney for the Independent Redistricting Commission.
In legal briefs filed at the U.S. Supreme Court, Mary O’Grady points out that challengers to the maps drawn by the five-member commission claim it purposely created unequal districts for partisan purposes. They charge that the panel “packed” Republicans into some districts in a deliberate effort to give Democrats an edge.
O’Grady said that was not the primary purpose, a conclusion backed by the majority of a three-judge panel in a ruling last year. She said the real aim was to protect minority voting strength as required by the federal Voting Rights Act.
Anyway, she said, if commissioners really intended to boost Democrat representation in the Legislature, they failed.
“Even if there was evidence that some commissioners had a partisan motivation with some changes, when you look at the map itself, there’s no real partisan advantage to the Democrats,” she told Capitol Media Services. “In fact, it probably tilts the other way.”
She said that in 2012, Republicans amounted to 54.4 percent of those registered with one of the two major parties in the state. Yet that year Republicans won 60 percent of the 60 House seats and 57 percent of the 30 Senate seats, a margin that did not change in last year’s election.
In separate legal filings Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice, in its own legal brief, is urging the justices to throw out the challenge because Republicans have “slightly more than their proportionate share of seats in the state Legislature.”
That fact could prove crucial in whether the nation’s high court, set to hear arguments next month, leaves the current 30 legislative districts alone or declares they were illegally drawn and directs the commission to start over. That latter option could give Republicans an even larger edge in both chambers.
Prior to 2000, legislative and congressional districts were drawn by state lawmakers. That process usually resulted in lines that were designed to favor the party in power — meaning Republicans.
In 2000, voters gave that power to the Independent Redistricting Commission, with two members appointed by Republicans, two by Democrats and those four choosing a fifth independent. That panel draws new lines after each decennial census.
The fight comes down to a conceded fact: The 30 districts drawn are not equal, with populations ranging from 203,026 to 220,157. But O’Grady told the justices they have approved maps with even larger differences.
That leaves the question of why the disparities.
In its 2014 ruling, the three-judge panel said there was evidence that “partisanship played some role in the design of the map” and the resultant creation of the unequal districts.
But two of the judges said the U.S. Constitution does not require that legislative districts have precisely equal population. Instead, the judges said, there can be “divergencies” that are necessary to achieve other goals.
In this case, they said the evidence showed the commission’s decision to manipulate the lines was “primarily a result of good-faith efforts to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” which prohibits diluting minority voting strength — and not primarily to give Democrats a political leg up.
That point was emphasized by attorneys for the Navajo Nation, who filed their own briefs Monday, asking the Supreme Court to reject the challenge.
Attorney Judith Dworkin said the maps meet constitutional requirements, even with the population differences among districts. But she also said there was a good reason, at least from the perspective of the tribe, for the commission to be concerned about minority voting strength.
“Historically, Arizona has failed to protect minority voting rights when redistricting,” she told the court, citing the years when the lines were drawn by lawmakers. She said that’s why Congress included Arizona in the requirements to get “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice for new districts, one of the stated goals by commissioners in moving around populations.
That 2014 ruling, however, was not unanimous. Judge Neil Wake concluded the population differences were motivated by partisanship.
O’Grady told the justices they should not intervene, even if they do find partisanship along with the admittedly unequal districts, saying it would have nationwide ripple effects.
She pointed out to the justices that they have previously concluded that both partisan considerations and unequal districts are “pervasive” in redistricting decisions, including those made by legislators.
She said if the high court throws out the Arizona maps, “nearly every legislative map nationwide would be at risk.”