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Redistricting law writers say ouster defies intent

From left to right, commission members Linda McNulty, Vice Chair Jose Herrera, Chair Colleen Mathis, and Richard Stertz, look over possible redistricting maps at an Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission meeting Sept. 15. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Civic activists who wrote the constitutional amendment approved by Arizona voters a decade ago to create the state’s redistricting commission say Gov. Jan Brewer’s removal of the panel’s chair violates the measure’s intent to take political map-drawing out of the hands of governors and state legislators.

The activists, leaders of three self-described good government groups, filed an advisory brief with the Arizona Supreme Court supporting a legal challenge to Brewer’s removal of Colleen Mathis.

Brewer on Nov. 1 invoked a provision in the 2000 redistricting amendment to remove Mathis, the commission’s chair and its only independent member. Brewer said the commission headed by Mathis failed to comply with constitutional requirements on mapping criteria and processes and also violated the state open meeting law.

Brewer’s “misinterpretation and abuse of the removal provision subverts the entire purpose and objective of the initiative,” said the brief filed Thursday by Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest attorneys on behalf of current or former leaders of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, Arizona Common Cause and Valley Citizens League.

Mathis has denied wrongdoing, defended the commission’s work and said Brewer was acting in the interest of Republican politicians who wanted safe districts. Brewer and Republican members of the state congressional delegation had complained that the commission’s draft map of congressional districts favored Democrats.

The removal of Mathis was upheld by the Republican-controlled state Senate by a required two-thirds vote during a hastily called special session, but is now being challenged in court by the commission and Mathis.

The brief filed on behalf of the activists who wrote the redistricting initiative said the removal provision was a “safety net” designed to be used only in case of scandal involving bribery and other serious wrongdoing. It wasn’t written to allow removals based on claimed of violations of redistricting requirements, it said.

Allowing Brewer her claimed “oversight” role over the redistricting provision through the removal provision would allow politicians to exert a veto power over “bad maps,” the brief argued.

“The drafters were not naïve. They realized that delegating the redistricting to an impartial commission would result in maps that would in all likelihood make some incumbent politicians unhappy. That was the whole point of insulating the process from a purely political arena and ensuring a balance of power,” the brief said.

Brewer’s lawyers argue that the governor acted within her constitutional authority. There’s no requirement in the constitutional provision for a detailed list of charges, while the provision’s requirement for a two-thirds Senate vote for a removal to take effect provided a “significant check” that prevents any abuse of the governor’s removal authority, the governor’s attorneys told the court on Monday.

In a new brief filed late Friday, Brewer’s lawyers said judicial action to undo the removal of Mathis would violate the state constitutional doctrine of separation of powers between the branches of government and that the Constitution clearly gives the governor discretion to remove commissioners.

“This court has no power to substitute its view on these questions,” the brief said.

It will be up to the state high court’s justices to decide whether Brewer acted within her constitutional authority to remove Mathis.

In such cases where there is legal debate over how to interpret an Arizona constitutional provision or state law, courts first look at the meaning of the wording of the provision or law. If the language is unclear, judges then will consider the intent of the authors to help construe the requirements of the law or constitutional provision.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Thursday.

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