The process of picking Arizona’s next Independent Redistricting Commission took a dramatic turn Dec. 14 when a legislative leader threatened to sue and a member of a selection committee resigned as criticism mounted over religious comments he made.
Judge Louis Araneta, a member of the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, submitted a resignation letter Dec. 14, noting that he did not want his comments to become a distraction to the work of the nominating commission or the judicial merit-selection process.
The nominating commission’s main task is to choose nominees to fill judicial vacancies on the Arizona Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. But every 10 years, it also selects the nominees for the commission in charge of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts.
The resignation came just a few hours before a news conference in which legislative leaders were going to denounce Araneta’s comments.
“Commissioner Araneta’s decision underscores this is an issue of importance,” said House Speaker Kirk Adams. “Indeed the events of last week were of constitutional importance.”
Adams and Senate President Russell Pearce were outraged that the nominating commission blocked the nomination of Christopher Gleason, a Tucson Republican, to the Independent Redistricting Commission.
The legislative leaders re-emphasized at the Dec. 14 press conference their previous calls for the nominating commission to reconsider three of its picks because Adams and Pearce believe they are ineligible to serve on the Redistricting Commission.
Adams said he won’t stand pat if the commission decides in favor of the status quo.
“I won’t speak for the president, but we will consider all options available to us up to and including legal action,” Adams said.
Gleason was one of 15 Republicans who were interviewed by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments Dec. 8. The commission during that meeting whittled down a list of 39 applicants to 25.
As the commission was discussing the qualifications of individual applicants, Araneta said he was troubled by religious references in Gleason’s application.
“There should be a separation between church and state,” Araneta said at the Dec. 8 meeting.
The only religious reference in Gleason’s application was the mission statement for a civic group he belonged to, 4-Tucson/Vision 360, an organization dedicated to establishing hundreds of churches across the country.
Gleason said he added the mission statement to disclose the nature of the organization. He also added the mission statements of two secular civic organizations he belongs to.
Araneta, a Democrat appointed to the commission by Gov. Jan Brewer, wrote in his resignation letter that he regretted that his comments were misinterpreted as opposition to Gleason because of Gleason’s faith.
“As a deeply religious man myself and someone who has spent my career ensuring impartiality in our legal system, my intent was to convey the importance of an applicant’s ability to separate spiritual views from civic duties,” Araneta wrote.
Gleason received only five of 14 votes from the commission and there was no rebuttal to Araneta’s comments, which Adams and Pearce said is proof the nine members voted against him on the basis of his religion.
“Under the U.S. Constitution it is clearly illegal to have any religious test at all, it is forbidden, and the comments would lead one to believe that,” Pearce said.
Adams and Pearce sent a letter Dec. 10 to Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch, who chairs the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, asking her to reconvene the commission and reconsider the nominations of Republicans Stephen Sossaman, Mark Schnepf and independent Paul Bender.
They also complained that the slate of Republican nominees lacks geographic diversity, which limits their ability to comply with geographic requirements in the selection process.
Legislative leaders will choose four of the five members for the Independent Redistricting Commission, and only two of the first four can be from the same county. The four chosen commissioners will choose from the independents and the independent will serve as chairman.
The order of selection is Speaker of the House, House minority leader, Senate president and Senate minority leader, and since there is only one Republican nominee from outside Maricopa County, Pearce’s choice would be limited to him.
They contend that Sossaman and Schnepf, both East Valley farmers, are ineligible to serve on the Redistricting Commission because they currently serve on the boards of irrigation districts, which violates prohibitions against serving in a public office for three years before joining the commission.
They also contend Bender, an ASU law professor, is ineligible because he currently serves on a tribal court.
Berch said she would have her staff schedule a meeting of the 14-member commission as soon as possible.
The clock is ticking on the selection process, which must be completed by Feb. 28.