Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Initiative on Redrawing Voting Districts

Ruling allows states to use independent commissions to draw congressional lines

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld Arizona’s method of drawing congressional district lines, giving new life to a tool designed to end partisan gerrymandering.

The court, in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled the Constitution allowed Arizona voters to take line-drawing authority away from state lawmakers and give it to an independent commission. In that 2000 ballot initiative, Arizonans “sought to restore the core principle of republican government, namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

The Arizona ballot initiative created a body made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent. Commission members were slated to serve a single term of about 10 years.

Supporters of the approach said it would curb the ability of the state’s majority political party to carve out voting districts that make their seats safer. This gerrymandering, many experts say, has created a nation of noncompetitive districts that elect members of the same party repeatedly.

Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, estimated there are typically between 40 and 60 competitive House races each election cycle, out of 435 seats.


Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, said the ability of majority parties to draw districts to incumbents’ favor is a major factor in polarization, incivility and the lack of turnover. Gerrymandering is by no means the sole cause of Washington dysfunction, Mr. Gaddie said, but there is a good argument “that it’s defying popular will and souring politics.”

 The Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature brought a legal challenge against Arizona’s commission in 2012, arguing it was unconstitutional to strip lawmakers of a voice in redistricting. They relied for support on the Constitution’s elections clause, which says the time, places and manner of holding congressional elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”

The Supreme Court’s four liberals, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, rejected that argument, saying the clause couldn’t be read to preclude voter initiatives that seek an alternative way of redistricting.

Justice Ginsburg said it is true that independent commissions haven’t “eliminated the inevitable partisan suspicions associated with political line-drawing,” but she said they have limited the conflict of interest associated with letting legislators draw electoral maps.

The four most conservative justices dissented, saying the court ignored clear constitutional language that gives state legislatures power to draw district lines. “No matter how concerned we may be about partisanship in redistricting, this court has no power to gerrymander the Constitution,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

DJ Quinlan, a Democratic political consultant and former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said state Democrats would have been disadvantaged had the court returned power over district maps to the Republican majority in the state legislature. U.S. House seats held by two Democrats are among three congressional districts that are competitive since the commission redrew congressional lines.

The decision drew a rebuke from Arizona Republicans.

“The framers selected the elected representatives of the people to conduct congressional redistricting,” David Gowan, speaker of the Arizona House, and Andy Biggs, president of the state Senate, said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that the clear constitutional design has been demolished by five lawyers at the high court.”

Colleen Mathis, chairwoman of Arizona’s redistricting commission and the panel’s independent, said “constituents win in competitive districts.”

Roughly a dozen states have commissions that play some role in drawing district lines following the U.S. census every decade. California’s commission, set up in 2008, most closely models Arizona’s in its independence from the state legislature.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the ruling could spur voters in other states to consider the commission model for redistricting. “A lot of efforts were proceeding warily, knowing the court might make the landscape more difficult,” Mr. Levitt said.

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