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Panel rejects resignations of 2 GOP redistricting applicants

Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch said she anticipated the challenge to redistricting commission nominees Mark Schnepf and Stephen Sossaman, and foresees more challenges coming. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography).

Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch said she anticipated legal challenges surrounding redistricting commission nominees Mark Schnepf and Stephen Sossaman, whose resignations were rejected Wednesday. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography).

Mark Schnepf and Stephen Sossaman may be surprised to learn that their resignations from the pool of applicants for the next Independent Redistricting Commission won’t end their involvement or the drama surrounding it.

The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments on Dec. 29 voted 9-4 to reject Schnepf and Sossaman’s resignations, with several commissioners saying the two Republicans were pressured into withdrawing by House Speaker Kirk Adams and Senate President-elect Russell Pearce. The GOP legislative leaders wrote letters to the two, along with independent nominee Paul Bender, asking them to step down.

The vote to reject the withdrawals came after the commission rejected another proposal to appoint two other Republicans to take their places.

By voting to reject the resignations, the board dismissed claims by Adams and Pearce that Schnepf and Sossaman should be disqualified from the Independent Redistricting Commission because they hold public office. Both serve on irrigation districts, which Adams and Pearce argued constitutes a public office.

Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch, who chairs the commission, said she expected a lawsuit over Bender, Schnepf and Sossaman’s nominations. The lawsuit, she said, would provide future clarification over who is considered a public official under the law.

“It seems like to me that if we send up a list … that there will likely be a challenge. I’m not afraid of challenges. I suspect challenges are coming elsewhere,” Berch said.

Adams and Pearce could not immediately be reached for comment, and it was unclear whether they intended to sue.

While some commissioners argued that it was impossible to determine Schnepf and Sossaman’s motivations for withdrawing, several others who wrote letters urging three disputed candidates to resign said they had clearly been pressured by Adams and Pearce. Commissioner Dewey Schade pointed to Schnepf’s Dec. 26 withdrawal letter, in which the Gilbert farmer said he didn’t believe his service on the New Magma Irrigation Board disqualified him, but that Adams and Pearce’s opposition ensured that they wouldn’t select him for the Independent Redistricting Commission.

“There’s no way … to know whether they were directly pressured. I don’t know that we can make that assumption or that leap. I do know, however, that in the case of Mr. Schnepf he makes it clear he thinks he’s qualified,” Schade said.

Commissioner Michael Rusing, one of the four who voted against rejecting the withdrawals, said he still believes that Schnepf and Sossaman’s inclusion would violate the provision of the Arizona Constitution that prohibits redistricting commissioners from holding public office.

“I don’t think with good conscience … I can do something that I think makes our list constitutionally infirm,” Rusing said.

Schnepf and Sossaman could not be reached for comment. It was unclear whether they would accept the commission’s vote.

“They always have the option of withdrawing again,” said Commissioner Robert Gallo.

The rejection of Schnepf and Sossaman leaves the list of Republican redistricting nominees at 10, as the Arizona Constitution requires. Proposition 106, which created the Independent Redistricting Commission in 1998, requires that the commission select 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independent candidates. Legislative leaders select the Republican and Democratic redistricting commissioners, who then select an independent to chair the commission.

The appellate commission’s vote, however, leaves Adams and Pearce with only one non-Maricopa County nominee on the list of Republicans. Adams and Pearce complained to the commission that the withdrawals left the Republican list with only one applicant from outside Maricopa County. Pearce, they argued, would be forced to choose that applicant because of a constitutional requirement that no more than two commissioners can be from the same county.

“This means that there’s a very good chance the President-elect Pearce will only have one choice that he can make,” Adams said. “It would be appropriate to restore a few non-Maricopa options to the list.”

Several commissioners said they didn’t realize until after they had finalized the list that it contained so many applicants from Maricopa County. Commissioner John Leavitt, however, said Republican leadership should have recruited more applicants from other counties.

“That was their job to do it and they didn’t do it,” Leavitt said. “But we did our job.”

Adams and Pearce asked the commission to replace Schnepf and Sossaman with Pima County applicants Christopher Gleason and Richard Stertz, the top vote-getters among the rejected applicants. Pearce said he was concerned that Gleason was dismissed because of his religious activities, which he said would be “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Instead, Rusing made a motion to appoint Gleason and Crystal Russell, a Mesa attorney, as the two replacements. The motion failed on a 9-4 vote.

Commissioners Suzanne Ballard, Doug Cole, William Ekstrom and Rusing voted for the failed motion to select Gleason and Russell, and against the rejection of Schnepf and Sossaman’s withdrawals.

Democratic Rep. Chad Campbell, the House minority leader, said Adams and Pearce’s bid to change the list of applicants is the exact type of political interference that Proposition 106 was designed to end. He said it would be inappropriate for the commission to make decisions based on their arguments, especially after Schnepf and Sossaman resigned at their request.

“It’s called ‘independent’ for a reason, and unfortunately it seems like some of my colleagues have forgotten that,” Campbell said during the public comment section of the hearing. “I say to them, too bad. You don’t’ always get what you want.”

Several speakers also defended Paul Bender, a law professor at Arizona State University. Adams and Pearce said he should be disqualified from the Independent Redistricting Commission because he serves as a volunteer judge on tribal courts, which they argued is a public office.

Some commissioners also disputed accusations that Gleason was rejected because of his religious activities. At the Dec. 8 meeting, Commissioner Louis Araneta questioned whether Gleason’s membership in a group dedicated to establishing churches across the country would affect his impartiality as a member of the Independent Redistricting Commission. Araneta, a former Maricopa County Superior Court judge, resigned from the commission after Adams, Pearce and others accused him of weeding out Gleason due to his religion.

Several commissioners defended Araneta and said they voted against Gleason for reasons that had nothing to do with religion.

“These people who have indicated we’re applying some kind of religious test to office just don’t know what they’re talking about,” Schade said.

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