Ross D. Franklin / AP

Supreme Court upholds congressional districts in Arizona

Justices reject Republican challenge to voter-approved initiative for independent commission to redraw districts

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld Arizona congressional districts drawn by an independent commission, rejecting a constitutional challenge from Republican lawmakers.

The court ruled 5-4 that the voter-approved ballot initiative did not violate a constitutional requirement that state legislatures set congressional district boundaries.

The outcome preserves efforts in 13 states to limit partisan influence in redistricting. Most notably, California uses an independent commission to draw electoral boundaries for its largest-in-the-nation congressional delegation.

The Arizona case stemmed from voter approval of an independent commission in 2000. The state legislature's Republican leaders filed their lawsuit after the commission's U.S. House map in 2012 produced four safe districts for Republicans, two for Democrats and made the other three seats competitive. Democrats won them all in 2012, but the Republicans recaptured one last year.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court that there is "no constitutional barrier to a state's empowerment of its people by embracing that form of lawmaking." She wrote that the Constitution's language giving legislatures the role of setting the "times, places and manner" of federal elections refers not to a specific legislative body, but instead to a state's general authority to legislate on the issue, which could include a voter-led initiative.

Justice Anthony Kennedy and Ginsburg's three liberal colleagues joined her opinion.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts accused the majority of approving a "deliberate constitutional evasion."

“Arizona voters wisely chose to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature to ensure the diverse communities and interests of our state were fairly represented in Congress," said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., in a statement. "I’m glad the Supreme Court agreed with the wisdom of that decision and that Arizonans will continue to have the fair and competitive districts our voters deserve.”

States are required to re-draw maps for congressional and state legislative districts to account for population changes after the once-a-decade census.

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, 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."

Only Arizona and California essentially remove the legislature from the process, the National Conference of State Legislatures said, in support of the Republican lawmakers in Arizona.

In February 2014, a special three-judge panel of the U.S. district court in Arizona ruled in favor of the commission.

Four of the five members of the independent panel are selected by senior members of the legislature of both parties from a list of candidates picked by a state committee that vets court judge applicants. The fifth is picked by the other four commission members from the same list.

Supporters of the commissions point to more competitive races in both Arizona and California since the commissions were created.

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