The Supreme Court is hearing an appeal from Arizona Republicans who want to take away a voter-approved commission's power to draw the state's congressional district boundaries.
The case before the court Monday considers whether voters can cut elected lawmakers out of redistricting in an effort to reduce political influence in the drawing of district lines for members of the U.S. House. A decision striking down the Arizona commission would doom a similar system in neighboring California and could affect districting commissions in an additional 11 states.
The justices have been unwilling to limit excessive partisanship in redistricting, known as gerrymandering. A gerrymander is a district that is intentionally drawn, and sometimes oddly shaped, to favor one political party.
Independent commissions such as Arizona's "may be the only meaningful check" left to states that want to foster more competitive elections, reduce political polarization and bring fresh faces into the political process, the Obama administration said.
The argument against independent commissions rests in the Constitution's Election Clause, which gives state legislatures the power to set "the times, places and manners of holding elections for senators and representatives." It also allows Congress to change those plans. The case could turn on whether Congress did so in a law passed in 1911, around the same time it was considering Arizona's statehood. The justices also will weigh whether the Legislature even has the right to file a lawsuit challenging the commission's maps.
"?Whatever their shortcomings, state legislatures are elected, politically accountable and hand-picked" by the Constitution's authors for the map-drawing task, said Paul Clement, who is representing the Arizona Legislature at the Supreme Court.
Only Arizona and California essentially remove the legislature from the process, the National Conference of State Legislatures said in support of the Republican lawmakers. Lawmakers' only contribution in those states is picking commission members from a list devised by others. In the other states — Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Washington — lawmakers have more input.
Supporters of the commissions point to more competitive races in both Arizona and California since their creation.
"When the district-drawing process is controlled by elected officials, the result too often is a process dominated by self-interest and partisan manipulation," political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein said in court papers supporting the independent commission.
States are required to re-draw maps for congressional and state legislative districts to account for population changes after the once-a-decade census.
Arizona Republicans sued the commission after its redistricting plan following the 2010 census left Republicans with four safe congressional seats, Democrats with two, and three tossup districts. The three tossup seats all went Democratic in the 2012 election, but one turned Republican in 2014.
The court fight has one odd aspect: California Republicans are avidly rooting against their party-mates in Arizona.
If the Republicans who control the Arizona Legislature prevail, the process for drawing district lines in California for the nation's largest congressional delegation, with 53 members, would be returned to the heavily Democratic state Legislature.
"Redistricting is perhaps the most political activity that government can engage in, and a partisan gerrymander of the congressional seats could lead to more Democrats in Congress from California," California GOP chairman Jim Brulte said.
A decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 13-1314, is expected before July.
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