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AZ court hears challenge to redistricting ouster

Ousted redistricting commission chairwoman Colleen Mathis (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

A lawyer for the ousted chair of Arizona’s redistricting commission told the state Supreme Court on Thursday that the commission would be a joke as an independent body if Gov. Jan Brewer’s removal of Colleen Mathis is allowed to stand.

Attorney Thomas Zlaket urged the state Supreme Court during arguments Thursday to overturn the Republican governor’s Nov. 1 removal of Mathis, an independent from Tucson.

“It destroys the independence of the commission,” Zlaket said.

The removal of Mathis has interrupted the drawing of new congressional and legislative districts for use in elections in the coming decade. Voters took that process out of the hands of the Legislature and governor when they created the commission in 2000.

Brewer attorney Lisa Hauser argued that the removal is a “political question” and that the Supreme Court would be violating the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers if it intervenes.

In removing Mathis with consent of the Republican-controlled Senate, the Republican governor invoked a constitutional provision that allows firing of redistricting commission members for gross misconduct or neglect of duty.

Because the governor provided all five commissioners with notice of alleged violations and gave them all a chance to respond, Brewer then was constitutionally empowered to remove Mathis with concurrence of the Senate, Hauser said. “At that point the procedures are satisfied.”

Brewer said in her letter removing Mathis that the commission violated the open meeting law and state constitutional mapping criteria and rules.

Mathis and the commission are challenging her removal, arguing in briefs submitted to the court that Brewer acted without the required legal grounds for removing Mathis and failed to provide required specifics in both the notice and the removal documents. They also said Brewer had partisan motivations to help fellow Republican officeholders.

Zlaket, a former Supreme Court chief justice, told the current justices that they live “in the real world” and cannot ignore partisan motivations for the ouster of his client.

The court did not indicate when it will rule.

Political stakes in the case are high because reinstatement of Mathis could set the stage for commission approval of final versions of draft maps of new congressional and legislative districts. Where lines are drawn are major factors in whether a political party and an individual candidate can win in a particular district.

The draft congressional map is particularly contentious because Brewer and other Republicans contend it favors Democrats, while Democrats and others say it would inject more competitiveness between the two major parties.

Mathis and the two Democratic commissioners who voted for the draft congressional map said it is subject to being changed based on input from a recent round of hearings held statewide. But if her removal stands, that eliminates a key underpinning for the starting point that the draft map represents.

Mathis has sided with the two Democrats on several important votes, including some key staffing choices and approval of the draft congressional map.

The Supreme Court last week declined without comment to temporarily reinstate Mathis pending the outcome of the case. However, the court agreed to give the case fast-track consideration.

A retired justice, Michael Ryan, is filling in for Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch. She excused herself from considering the challenge because she chairs the state panel that screens applicants for commission vacancies.

The justices hearing the case include three Republicans — two appointed by Brewer and one by Republican Jane Hull — and two Democrats appointed by former Gov. Janet Napolitano.

The screening panel has received 19 applications to replace Mathis, but reinstatement of Mathis would stop the replacement process.

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