U.S. Supreme Court schedules arguments in redistricting case

Jeremy Duda//October 12, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court schedules arguments in redistricting case

Jeremy Duda//October 12, 2015


The U.S. Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments for December 8 in a case that could redraw the legislative boundaries created by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

A group of GOP activists alleges that the commission illegally overpopulated Republican-dominated legislative districts and underpopulated Democratic districts with the intent of giving the minority party an advantage in certain districts. Plaintiffs in the case, Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, argue that the commission’s actions violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the “one person, one vote” principle established by the Supreme Court.

The commission argued that it was simply trying to comply with the Voting Rights Act. At the time, Arizona was subject to the act’s “preclearance” provision that required it get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for its redistricting maps.

In 2014, a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court sided with the commission on a 2-1 vote, ruling that the Voting Rights Act was a legitimate reason for population deviations between legislative districts. The judges said preclearance was the primary factor in the commission’s decisions, though the court said some IRC members were motivated by a desire to “improve Democratic prospects.”

The questions before the court are whether the desire to gain partisan advantage justifies overpopulation of some districts, whether the commission was correct in using race and party affiliation to create Latino Democratic districts, and whether the desire to obtain preclearance was a legitimate factor. And even if it determines that the Voting Rights Act was a legitimate driver of the commission’s decisions, the court must also decide whether it is still a valid justification, given that it struck down the act’s preclearance provisions in 2013.

Plaintiffs in the case focused on three legislative districts that they allege were drawn to help Democrats: Pinal County-based Legislative District 8, central Phoenix-based Legislative District 24, and Tempe-based Legislative District 26. LD24 and LD26 are solidly Democratic districts, while LD8 is arguably the most competitive district in Arizona, being one of only two with a legislative delegation that is split between Democrats and Republicans.

If the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs, it could dramatically rearrange Arizona’s legislative map. In order to redraw the three offending districts, the commission would have to alter numerous other districts as well.

Both sides have retained veteran Beltway election law attorneys to represent them at the Supreme Court. The commission hired Paul Smith of the firm Jenner and Block, who has argued 16 cases before the Supreme Court, while the plaintiffs are represented by Mark Hearne of the firm Arent Fox, who served as legal counsel for President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.

Harris isn’t the only redistricting case the Supreme Court will hear on December 8. The court will also hear arguments that day in Evenwel v. Abbott, which could be one of the most important cases the high court hears this session. The case will determine whether the inclusion of non-eligible voters such as children and non-citizens in district population figures violates the “one person, one vote” principle, and could dramatically alter the way legislative districts are drawn across the United States.

The IRC notched a win at the Supreme Court in June when the justices voted 5-4 to uphold its authority to draw congressional districts. A lawsuit by the Arizona Legislature argued that the U.S. Constitution reserves that right exclusively for state legislatures, and that an unelected, voter-approved commission could not exercise that authority.

Another lawsuit working its way through state court seeks a redraw of the state’s congressional districts on the grounds that the commission violated redistricting procedures laid out in the Arizona Constitution. A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for July 2016.