Ruling Spurs Hopes for Redistricting 06/30 13:00
Groups hoping to squeeze partisan politics out of how states shape
congressional districts are hailing a Supreme Court decision that lets
independent commissions, not legislatures, draw those lines.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Groups hoping to squeeze partisan politics out of how
states shape congressional districts are hailing a Supreme Court decision that
lets independent commissions, not legislatures, draw those lines.
But Republicans say Monday's 5-4 decision upholding Arizona's independent
redistricting commission will have little nationwide impact. And history shows
that past efforts to persuade voters to change how states shape districts have
had mixed results.
Proponents of shifting redistricting from state legislatures to independent
bodies say they'll rely in part on the same technique Arizona used:
Initiatives, which let voters put questions on the ballot, usually after
gathering signatures on petitions.
"The current system allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than
allowing voters to choose their elected officials," said Lloyd Leonard,
advocacy director for the League of Women Voters, which filed a brief backing
From 1904 to 2001, there were 39 statewide ballot initiatives on how
legislative boundaries are configured, and the voters have approved only 15,
according data from the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University
of Southern California law school. Most addressed state legislative lines.
That underscores the difficulty of approving those changes and how
infrequently such questions come before voters. Twenty-four states allow ballot
initiatives, according to the institute.
While that opens the door for many states to consider redistricting
commissions, "That door wasn't exactly swinging wildly before this case came
up," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the liberal-leaning Brookings
Institution who submitted a brief supporting commissions.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a new case in coming months on
whether the drawing of state legislative lines by Arizona's redistricting
commission was constitutional.
With the GOP's current House majority aided by its domination of
congressional line-drawing in many states, some Republicans conceded that
reducing that power could hurt them but would be hard for opponents to achieve.
"It's a sweeping decision that lays the groundwork, but the work still has
to be done" by advocates of independent commissions, said GOP strategist Sean
Noble. "And whether they have the time, money or will has yet to be determined."
Others doubted that commissions would actually remove partisanship from the
once-a-decade process of shaping congressional districts.
The commissions "could be used to shield or really cover what is actually
the same partisan politics," said Michael T. Morley, attorney for the
conservative Coolidge-Reagan Foundation, which wrote a brief opposing the
Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for the liberal Common Cause,
said efforts to use initiatives to alter how district boundaries are drawn are
under way in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. In three other states, supporters are
working through the legislature: Indiana, Maryland and North Carolina, she said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, "believes redistricting decisions are
best made by the people's representatives in state legislatures --- not by some
unelected, unaccountable board of bureaucrats," said Boehner press secretary
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., backed the court decision and
said Congress should set standards so state redistricting commissions "reflect
the diversity of their states and communities."
In Monday's ruling, the justices rejected a challenge by Arizona's
Republican-led legislature to the state's independent commission, which voters
established by ballot initiative in 2000.
The legislators argued that the Constitution reserves the power to draw
district lines to state legislatures, not a commission created by initiative.
That argument was rejected by the court's four liberal justices plus Anthony
Kennedy, a frequent swing voter.
"The invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution's
conception of the people as the font of governmental power," Justice Ruth Bader
Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the dissenters said the majority relied
on "disconnected observations about direct democracy, a contorted
interpretation of an irrelevant statute and naked appeals to public policy."
The decision left the status quo intact for Arizona and 12 other states that
have commissions with varying roles in drawing congressional lines.
Overall, Republicans have a 246-188 House majority, plus a vacancy in one
Analysts attribute part of that advantage to Democrats' concentration in
dense urban areas. But it also reflects district lines Republicans drew after
making major gains in 2010 state elections. In 2012, GOP House candidates got
1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats but won a 33-seat majority.
The GOP controls the governorship and legislature of 24 states, including
Nebraska's officially nonpartisan legislature. Seven states are run by
Democrats and 19 are split, according to the National Conference of State