In an unprecedented move that cast shadows of uncertainty over the state’s decennial remapping process, the Senate voted to remove Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Chairwoman Colleen Mathis.
The Senate voted to oust Mathis on a party line 21-6 vote – three Democrats were absent – for “neglect of duty” and “gross misconduct in office.” The charges stemmed from Republican allegations that Mathis, the independent chair of the panel, ignored constitutional criteria for drawing congressional and legislative districts and violated open meeting laws during the selection of a mapping consultant.
“There were flaws. The Constitution was not followed,” said Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, the Senate majority whip. “The people put them into that place, and then they didn’t go by the rules.”
The move puts Arizona in uncharted territory as the redistricting process moves forward. This is only the second time an independent redistricting commission has drawn Arizona’s maps, and is the first time a commissioner has been forcibly removed. An attorney for Mathis has already asked the Arizona Supreme Court to block her removal.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the Senate was simply following its constitutional duty by acting on Gov. Jan Brewer’s recommendations. The same 2000 ballot measure that created the IRC, Proposition 106, also gave the governor and Senate the authority to remove commissioners with a two-thirds vote.
“We are doing exactly what the Constitution says we should be doing. If the governor finds some gross misconduct on the part of any member of the commission, she has the authority given to her by the voters of this state and now embodied in the Constitution to remove that actor, and that’s what she has done,” Biggs said.
Democrats, however, accused Republicans of a power grab and said they were undermining the will of the voters who chose to take the power of redistricting and turn it over to an independent commission. They said Brewer and Senate Republicans simply didn’t like the maps and were impeaching Mathis in order to get more favorable districts.
“There is no basis for this removal other than pure partisan politics. That’s it. There have been absolutely no findings of fact and no conclusions of law,” said Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe. “Apparently innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply in this case. What we have here is a witch hunt, one coordinated by a governor, secretary of state, an attorney general, a Republican congressional delegation and a Republican legislative leadership team, with a predetermined outcome. It is a disgrace.”
For several minutes, Democrats appeared to be delaying their vote, which left Senate President Russell Pearce and several colleagues and staffers poring over the Senate rule book to determine whether voting could end before the Democrats tallied their ‘nays.’
But one by one, the last Democratic holdouts cast their votes, with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema providing the final vote against Mathis’ removal. Sinema said the Republicans should seek redress in the courts if they feel the IRC didn’t follow the constitutional criteria instead of interfering with a redistricting process that voters wanted to be independent of politicians.
Several Democrats emphasized that the current maps approved by the IRC are not final yet, and won’t be until a 30-day public comment period ends on Nov. 5.
Brewer made serious accusations of misconduct in her Oct. 26 letter to all five commissioners, and numerous Republican senators echoed those allegations on the Senate floor. But it was Secretary of State Ken Bennett – serving in his capacity as acting governor while Brewer was out of town promoting her new book – who issued the special session call shortly before 5 p.m.
Bennett also sent a letter to Mathis to inform her that he was calling a special session to unseat her.
“After careful review of your response and the responses of other commissioners, I have determined that you have failed to conduct the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s business in meetings open to the public, and failed to adjust the grid map as necessary to accommodate all of the goals set forth in (the) Arizona Constitution,” Bennett wrote.
Bennett’s call, which was made at Brewer’s request, came hours after senators were told to expect the session to begin. Senate GOP leadership spent much of day ensuring it had enough votes to remove Mathis, an uncertainty at the start of the day.
Two Republican senators, Frank Antenori of Tucson and Michele Reagan of Scottsdale, were still hesitant to use the Legislature’s nuclear option against, largely out of uncertainty over the future of the redistricting process. Biggs said other senators addressed the duo’s concerns, but would not say how. Neither Antenori nor Reagan spoke during the special session.
The House and Senate also voted to approve a memorial urging the IRC to restart the mapping process for the congressional and legislative districts in a way that follows the six redistricting criteria laid out in the Arizona Constitution. The memorial was the result of findings by the Joint Legislative Committee on Redistricting, which Democrats boycotted, claiming it was a political stunt.
The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments – the body that chooses IRC nominees from a pool of applicants – now has 30 days to choose three candidates to replace her. The four remaining commissioners will have two weeks after that to select a chair from that pool. If the two Democrats and two Republicans do not reach a decision in that timeframe, the appellate commission will select the chair itself.
But with the IRC facing the possibility of completely restarting a redistricting process that has gone on for months, there are questions over whether the commission will be able to finish its congressional and legislative maps in time for the 2012 election, which has a May 30 filing deadline for candidates. There is no set deadline for the IRC to complete its work, but if a panel of three federal judges determines that the commission’s work is not done in time, the judges – two from Arizona’s district court and one from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – can draw the maps themselves, as happened with Arizona’s congressional map in 1992.
Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said it remains to be seen whether the IRC will be able to finish the maps in time. He said he believes it likely will, but acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to say with certainty.
If the new maps turn out worse than the old ones approved by the Mathis-led IRC, Driggs said it’s possible that he and some of his colleagues will come to regret their historic decision. “That’s a possibility because the future’s unknown. There’s no way to predict what will happen next,” he said.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, agreed that there’s no way to predict how the rest of the remapping process will play out. But given the serious misconduct committed by the IRC, he said, it’s a risk that needed to be taken.
“I think it’s a crapshoot,” Gould said.
-Luige del Puerto contributed to this report
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