Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Redistricting Plan

By John Celock

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Arizona’s redistricting commission, dealing a blow to state Republicans who had looked to change the system.

The Court ruled 5-4 Monday to uphold a voter referendum in 2000 that created the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission to draw the state’s congressional and state legislative lines. The commission has been criticized by Republicans since 2011 when the lines drawn created several swing districts in the state. The ruling has national implications, including for California, which created a similar commission and in states that are considering the move.

In an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court ruled that the Constitution allowed for a citizen referendum to create a redistricting process instead of a state Legislature. The ruling stated that since the Arizona constitution allowed for the citizens to perform legislative functions through the initiative and referendum process, the laws passed through the process equate to those passed by the Legislature.

The ruling keeps in place the independent commissions used in Arizona and California, which have taken the redistricting process out of the hands of the Legislature. In both states, commissioners selected by an independent nominating body draw legislative and congressional lines. In both states, the lines have to be approved by commissioners from both parties and the rules prohibit active partisan political involvement by commissioners prior to their service. The California commission was also created through the referendum process.

Several other states have redistricting commissions but not in the same scope as Arizona and California. This includes New Jersey, where both main political parties nominate equal numbers of commissioners to draw the lines and a tie breaker appointed by the state’s chief justice in effect picks the final map.

The Arizona redistricting commission has been the focus of controversy since 2011 when then Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and Republicans objected to congressional maps from the commission that created four Republican districts, three Democratic districts and two swing districts, along with placing two incumbent Republicans in the same district. Among the swing districts created were the one now held by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), who is viewed as a top Democratic contender for future statewide office.

Brewer attempted to fire the commission’s chairwoman, Colleen Coyle Mathis, saying that Coyle Mathis led the commission in holding secret meetings and drawing maps that did not keep “communities of interest” together and were compact. Brewer also argued that Coyle Mathis did not use proper methods for drawing the lines and did not disclose her husband’s involvement in Democratic campaigns. The Republican-controlled state Senate sided with Brewer in Coyle Mathis’ removal.

The state Supreme Court though overruled Brewer saying that the state constitution did not allow for Coyle Mathis to be removed except for malpractice. Brewer had argued that state law allowed for her to remove the commission’s chairwoman for any circumstance including not liking Coyle Mathis’ hair style.

The 2011 dispute also included allegations by state Democrats that Brewer had made the move to remove Coyle Mathis at the prompting of Marilyn Quayle, the wife of former Vice President Dan Quayle and the mother of then U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle (R). Ben Quayle had been redistricted in to a district with another Republican congressman under the plan, a race he subsequently lost. Mrs. Quayle has denied the allegations.