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Challenges to political district maps will face a high hurdle

The independent panel tasked with drawing new political lines that the state will use for the next decade is expecting to wrap up its work in the next few weeks, despite opposition from many of the Republicans that control state government. With the Supreme Court’s decision last month overturning the Gov. Jan Brewer’s removal of Independent Redistricting Chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis (which was done with the approval of Senate Republicans) and the governor’s subsequent decision not to let lawmakers move forward on a ballot measure to change – if not repeal – the commission, the options for IRC critics are limited.

The most likely next step is for Republican legislators and congressmen to wait until the maps are finalized and then file a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality. Most political observers expect any lawsuit to allege that the districts violate a constitutional provision requiring that “communities of interest” be preserved. Ever since the draft maps were released in early October, Republicans have argued that the lines divide well-established communities in favor of crafting competitive districts.

But making such a case could prove difficult, if not impossible, in no small part thanks to the work of Republicans who defended the first IRC. A decade ago, the redistricting panel drew maps that were universally deemed to favor Republicans, thanks to a chairman who generally favored the Republicans and a Democratic commissioner who was arguably more concerned with preserving rural representation in Eastern Arizona than in toeing the party line. When a Hispanic advocacy group sued over the lines and argued that they violated the constitutional requirements, the IRC’s attorneys succeeded in defending the maps and persuaded the court to rule that the Constitution grants the panel legislative privileges that prevent the court from second-guessing the decisions it makes.

Essentially, that means any future legal challenges to IRC-drawn maps will face a high hurdle. With a Supreme Court ruling that gives the IRC the authority to balance the various – and often competing – criteria, any lawsuit needs to have more going for it than just an opposition to how the lines were drawn. Given that the current commission seems dead-set on drawing more competitive districts (to the dissatisfaction of the Republicans the currently hold the majority of congressional districts and super-majorities in both houses of the state Legislature), that means the panel’s critics have their work cut out for them.

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