Gov. Jan Brewer and Republican legislative leaders are considering another effort to remove the chair of the state redistricting commission, despite the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling that an initial attempt was improper.
The court late Thursday ruled that Brewer’s stated reasons for ousting Colleen Mathis failed to demonstrate that Mathis engaged in conduct that gave the Republican governor constitutional grounds for removal. The justices also rejected the argument by Brewer’s lawyers that the removal was a “political question” not subject to court review.
The court said it will explain its legal reasoning in a formal opinion later. That left uncertainty about whether the governor’s stated reasons for removing Mathis were unsound, or if the way she presented the reasons in her Nov. 1 removal letter was simply inadequate.
The court’s action was a dramatic development in months of controversy over the state’s once-a-decade process of drawing new congressional and legislative districts. Republicans have accused the commission of producing a draft congressional map that favors Democrats, while Democrats say Brewer is trying to protect Republican incumbents.
Political stakes in the case are high because Mathis’ reinstatement could set the stage for the five-member commission to approve final versions of new congressional and legislative district maps. Where the lines are drawn is a major factor in whether a political party and an individual candidate can win in a particular district.
Arizona voters created the commission in 2000, taking redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and the governor. Supporters of the change said it would take lawmakers’ self-interest out of the process and create more competitive districts. Republicans and tea party activists now say there’s no real accountability for the appointed commission.
Brewer removed Mathis by invoking a constitutional provision allowing removals for substantial neglect of duty or gross misconduct. The governor has said the commission under Mathis violated the state open meeting law and constitutional mapping criteria and processes.
“All we know is the court’s ultimate conclusion,” said Brewer attorney Lisa Hauser. “We don’t know whether these reasons can never constitute grounds for removal or whether the court believes there was not enough detail in the Nov. 1 letter.
“Until the court speaks further, the governor won’t know what she did wrong,” Hauser added.
Critics of Mathis’ removal welcomed the ruling, with House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, saying it restored the commission’s independence.
Brewer, who called the order a “misguided ruling,” said in a statement Thursday night she would consult legislative leaders about possible options.
Brewer Chief of Staff Eileen Klein declined to comment Friday, saying she needed to meet with Brewer, who was returning from Washington.
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson previously declined to describe the options under consideration, but he said the court’s order “potentially” left open the possibility of trying to remove Mathis again with more detailed charges and findings in the removal order.
Senate President-elect Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said lawyers were working on a new removal letter while reviewing legal issues.
“I believe it can be fixed with a better letter,” he said, adding that a course hasn’t been decided. “It’s totally up to the governor,” he said.
Other Republican senators said they were still digesting the court action but mentioned the try-again option and others. Those included holding a special election early next year to ask voters to return redistricting to the Legislature, and allowing the commission to finish its work but then sue to challenge its final maps.
“I don’t know what’s next,” said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler. “I would anticipate that we’re going to look for other solutions because pretty clearly if we’re going to come back and get 3-2 (commission) votes to adopt the existing maps or iterations, I think they’re blatantly unconstitutional.”
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he didn’t know where the legal developments, policy considerations, time constraints and political realities would lead. “I don’t see a pathway,” he said.
Under the state constitution, Brewer needs concurrence from two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate to remove a commissioner. The 30-member Senate’s 21 Republicans voted as a bloc to remove Mathis.
Mathis is the commission’s only independent member, and she has provided swing votes as she sided with the Democrats on several key decisions on mapping choices and staff selections.
Meanwhile, the commission was considering what to do now that the court has ordered Mathis’ reinstatement. The commission hasn’t met since before Brewer removed Mathis on Nov. 1, so it’s unknown whether and when the panel would begin working on final versions of draft congressional and legislative district maps that Brewer and other Republicans have criticized.
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 was subject to being changed based on input from a recent round of statewide hearings. But her removal, if allowed to stand, would have eliminated a key underpinning for the starting point that the draft map represents.
The justices who heard the case included three Republicans — two appointed by Brewer and one by Republican Jane Hull — and two Democrats appointed by former Gov. Janet Napolitano.
One of the Republicans was a retired justice filling in for Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, also a Republican. She excused herself from considering the challenge because she chairs the state panel that screens applicants for redistricting commission vacancies.