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Updated Apr 29, 2014 - 3:25 pm

Judges uphold Arizona legislative district maps

PHOENIX — A panel of federal judges on Tuesday refused to throw out
Arizona’s new state legislative district maps, finding that the state’s
redistricting commission did not violate the Constitution’s equal-protection
clause when they put more voters in some districts.

The three judges said the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission did not
violate the one-person, one-vote principle when it overloaded some districts,
accepting the commission’s argument that it was balancing state law and the need
to get U.S. Justice Department approval required under the voting Rights Act.

The decision came more than a year after the judges held a weeklong trial where
lawyers for 11 Republican voters who sued the commission argued the commission
illegally injected partisan politics into the process. They alleged the
commission illegally shifted Republican voters from some districts to make them
more likely to elect Democrats to the state Legislature on the premise of
complying with the federal Voting Rights Act.

The commission argued that it followed state rules for creating compact
districts, keeping “communities of interest” together, and competitiveness in
making its decisions. But it also had to deal with the getting the U.S.
Department of Justice to sign off on the commission’s maps, so it had to create
districts where minorities had a chance to elect representatives of their
choosing.

The three jurists _ District Judges Roslyn Silver and Neil Wake and Circuit
Judge Richard Clifton _ found that the primary factor in the overpopulated
districts was the effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act and get
pre-clearance. But they noted that that some decisions were based on political
factors.

“… We find that some of the commissioners were motivated in part in some of
the linedrawing decisions by a desire to improve Democratic prospects in the
affected districts,” they said in their unsigned opinion. “Nonetheless, the
Fourteenth Amendment gives states some degree of leeway in drawing their own
legislative districts and, because compliance with federal voting rights law was
the predominant reason for the deviations, we conclude that no federal
constitutional violation occurred.”

The judges noted that they did not decide whether the commission violated any
state laws, leaving open the possibility of a new challenge in state court.

The Republicans’ lawyers argued that the commission’s reliance on the Voting
Rights Act was a cover for drawing partisan districts.

The five-member commission became the source of political wrangling shortly
after it began its work following the 2010 Census. Republicans believed the
independent on the commission, Colleen Mathis, was aligned with the two
Democrats on the panel, and Gov. Jan Brewer ordered her removed in November
2011. The Arizona Supreme Court restored her to the post two weeks later, saying
Brewer had no grounds to remove her.

The commission then finished its work and finalized the new maps in January
2012. They were used in the November 2012 election.

Voters created the commission in 2000 to take the politically charged
once-a-decade job of drawing new maps out of the hands of the Legislature.

Tuesday’s win is the second of the year for the commission.

In February, another federal panel dismissed a lawsuit filed by the
Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature that to throw out the state’s U.S.
congressional district maps.

That panel rejected lawmakers’ arguments that the U.S. Constitution gives only
the Legislature the authority to draw maps for the federal districts. The case
is now on direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Tuesday’s ruling also may
be headed to the nation’s high court.

Attorney David Cantelme, who represented the 11 Republican voters, including
the wife of Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, said he would take at least a
week before deciding whether to appeal Tuesday’s decision.

However, he noted that two of the three judges found the commission was
motivated at least in part by partisanship.

“It’s important to note the state constitution says you’re not supposed to
consider it at all,” he said.

A third case in state court, challenging the congressional district maps, is
awaiting action.

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