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Courts: Redistricting lawsuits to move forward, commissioners cannot invoke legislative immunity

Redistricting Commission seeks cash for defenseA series of court rulings issued late last week in two lawsuits against the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission further pave the path for Republican litigants who hope to prove the commission illegally created maps to favor Democrats.

One ruling guarantees that one of the cases will go to trial late next month, while the other establishes that commissioners will not be able to invoke the “legislative privilege” allowing legislative bodies to refuse to answer questions in a legal setting.

A Feb. 21 ruling by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge denied a last-chance request by the commission to throw out a lawsuit that claims the state’s nine congressional districts were intentionally drawn to give favor to Democrats by packing Republicans into four districts.

Courts have historically given redistricting bodies liberal authority over the redrawing of districts, and have veered away from ordering districts to be redrawn except in the most egregious cases. But such an order was given to Arizona’s redistricting commission after the 2001 redistricting, and the litigants believe they can prove the commission violated the state’s Constitution, which gives just six broad mapping directives.

And a federal court on Friday denied the commission’s request to allow commissioners to refuse answering questions under “legislative privilege” in a suit that claims the state’s legislative map violates federal laws because of population deviations among districts.

Those deviations, the lawsuit alleges, were also intentionally made to favor Democrats.

Minor population deviations, between five and ten percent, have been upheld by federal courts in similar cases.

A three-judge panel will begin hearing the case on March 29.

Both suits are part of broader allegations made by many Republicans that the commission’s maps were created to favor Democrats with the help of Colleen Mathis, the chairwoman of the five-person panel.

They say that, although Mathis is registered neither as a Republican nor a Democrat, as is required for the commission’s chair by the state Constitution, she repeatedly squashed proposals by the panel’s two Republican commissioners while advancing proposals from the commission’s two Democrats.

Mathis’ Republican critics also point work her husband did for a Democratic legislative candidate in 2010, which she failed to disclose in her application, and to a weekend mapping session where she worked with the commission’s mapping consultants outside of public meetings to come up with what became the framework for the state’s new congressional map.

Michael Liburdi, a Republican attorney working on both cases, said he is highly encouraged by the recent rulings and plans to begin deposing commissioners this week.

The two Republican commissioners, who have been cooperative with the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, will be deposed this week, Liburdi said, and the commission’s mapping consultants will be interviewed next week.

Liburdi said he will have the two Democratic commissioners and the independent chairwoman, who have been resistant to previous probes into alleged wrongdoing, given notices for depositions as quickly as possible.

Liburdi, who emphasized the importance of having commissioners required to answer his questions under deposition, said one of the most important questions he wants answered is who advised commissioners on mapping decisions outside the public meetings.

“Who played a role in drafting the district lines and what were their motives?” he said.

Mathis and the two Democratic candidates have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but Liburdi said it’s possible partisan operatives may have been giving them direction, and that such revelations might finally come out during the trials.

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