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Justice Department approves congressional redistricting plan

Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Chair Mathis, left, and Vice Chair Scott Freeman laugh during discussions Dec. 7 in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The U.S. Department of Justice today announced it has approved Arizona’s proposed congressional redistricting plan, despite a last minute appeal by some Republicans who said minority voting rights could have been strengthened.

The Justice Department decision means that barring a lawsuit that could successfully challenge the maps, the nine new congressional districts will be used for the next 10 years.

The Justice Department’s two-paragraph letter explains plainly that the U.S. Attorney General “does not interpose any objection,” to the plan, but says that the approval does not bar any subsequent litigation from enjoining the new congressional plan.

Justice Department preclearance specifically relies on ensuring minority voting-rights protection.

Republicans who last week raised concerns over minority voting rights have also cried out throughout the redistricting process that the maps were specifically drawn to hurt Republicans.

That accusation was fueled by the fact that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission hired a mapping firm with ties to the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign and other Democratic causes.

Republicans also complained that the commission’s independent chairwoman, Colleen Mathis, destroyed procurement documents and tried to secretly coerce other commissioners to hire the firm, leading to an Attorney General’s Office investigation into possible violations of the state’s open meetings laws. That investigation was halted when a state court ruled that the redistricting commission is not subject to state open meetings laws.

The dramatic unfolding of accusations of nefarious redistricting ultimately led Gov. Jan Brewer and Republicans in the Arizona Senate to remove Mathis, only to have the Arizona Supreme Court reinstate her, saying the removal was unconstitutional.

The plan creates four solidly Republican districts, two Democratic-leaning minority-majority districts and three toss-up districts, which also have no incumbent representative running in the fall.

The map sets up a fierce primary between two freshman Republican congressmen, Reps. David Schweikert and Ben Quayle. And another freshman Republican, Rep. Paul Gosar, moved into a more Republican-favoring neighboring district to wage his re-election.

Veteran congressmen Trent Franks, a Republican, and Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor, both Democrats, have been drawn into favorable districts.

The map leaves four districts with no incumbent, though one of them is the seat recently vacated by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is still recovering from the shooting spree that killed six people in January of 2011.

The non-incumbent districts include one solidly Republican district in the east metro Phoenix area, one competitive district in the center of the same area, an expansive, competitive, rural district in northeastern Arizona that leans slightly Democratic and the slightly Republican leaning Tucson-centric competitive district where Giffords would naturally have run.

The commission finished the maps in January and submitted them for Justice Department review in February. The legislative map is still under review, but a decision is expected by April 30.

• SEE THE CONGRESSIONAL MAP HERE

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