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7/9/2013 2:22:00 PM
U.S. Supreme Court hears AZ redistricting case

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A bid by Republicans to upend the state's 30 legislative districts could be bolstered -- or thrown out of federal court -- because of the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an order Monday, the three-judge panel hearing the challenge to the lines said they want attorneys to tell them what effect last month's ruling on the federal Voting Rights Act has on the case. The high court concluded the formula used to require Arizona and other states to get federal "preclearance' of voting law changes -- including redistricting lines -- is illegal.

That could prove significant.

Attorneys for the Independent Redistricting Commission have conceded that the 30 districts they drew do not have equal population. But they argued those variances were necessary to create a sufficient number of districts where minorities had the chance of electing someone of their choice.

More to the point, they said having a sufficient number of such districts was necessary to ensure that Arizona could get the district lines precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.

If the whole need for preclearance was legally unnecessary, then a key reason for the unequal districts disappears.

Hanging in the balance could be the political makeup of the Legislature through the end of the decade. Before 2012, Republicans had 21 of the 30 Senate seats and a 40-20 edge in the House. Last year's election, after redistricting, narrowed those leads to 17-13 and 36-24, respectively.

If the judges agree with challengers, they likely would order the commission to redraw the lines for the 2014 race, but this time with directions as to what they can and cannot do.

Joe Kanefield, one of the commission's attorneys, said late Monday he is still studying the order. But Kanefield said he will argue that what the Supreme Court did last month is legally irrelevant to this case.

Last month the high court overturned a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which created a formula to determine which states and counties have a history of discrimination and therefore must submit any alterations in voting laws to the Department of Justice for "preclearance.' Arizona got on the list in 1975 because of its history of printing ballots only in English.

The justices told Congress it is free to come up with a new formula that reflects current conditions. But as of now, there is no preclearance and Arizona is free to alter its laws without such oversight.

But Kanefield said preclerance was in effect in 2011.

"So compliance ... was certainly a legitimate goal of the commission,' he said. And Kanefield said the lines drawn did what they were supposed to do: got precleared.

"And there's no reason why that would change, even in light of the United States Supreme Court decision,' he said.

Attorney David Cantelme, representing challengers, sees it different.

"The heart of their defense is the Voting Rights Act,' he said, saying the ruling "really affects Arizona.'

But Monday's order has a danger to the challengers: The judges want to know whether the elimination of the section of the Voting Rights Act means the case should not be in federal court and instead playing out before a state judge. Cantelme said he will fight any effort to dismiss the case.

"We're here to vindicate federal rights in federal court,' he said. Anyway, Cantelme said, the case already went to trial in March, with both sides awaiting a final ruling.

But it may not matter if the judges say the issues, including the population of districts, is no longer a federal issue.

The lawsuit says the commission deliberately sought to create as many districts favorable to Democrats as possible, pushing as many Republicans as possible into GOP-dominated districts to leave as many as possible safe for Democrats.

He said the commission did that by over-populating GOP districts and under-populating the Democratic ones.

As an example, he cited District 8, which runs from Oracle and San Manuel through Coolidge and Florence into the San Tan Valley and up through Globe. Democrats have a 10-point registration edge over Republicans.

Cantelme said the commission created a district of 208,422, more than 4,600 less than what each district should have if there were an equal number of people in each. Voters drawn out of the district, he said, were Republicans.

He said that should have been a politically competitive district rather than one largely favorable to Democrats.

But Mary O'Grady, another commission attorney, said there were concerns about the Department of Justice concluding the lines meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. And O'Grady has argued the 2000 voter-approved state constitutional amendment creating the commission requires them to meet other goals, including creating as many politically competitive districts as possible.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Article comment by: Frank Henry

If, we the voters had our individual "Full Voting
Rights" recognized by our gov (fed, state, local)
in all the election laws/procedures we would not
have any minor political party crying before a
court that their number of legislative seats has
been reduced.

(Oh, by the way, the seats belong to the
voters....NOT to the political parties.)

Thanks and Good Luck.

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