When Gov. Doug Ducey appointed three people to a commission largely unknown to the public, Democratic senators tasked with confirming the appointees decried them as pawns in the governor’s attempt to ensure Arizona bucks its changing demographics and remains in Republican hands for the next decade.
The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments (CACA) is mostly tasked with vetting candidates for Ducey to appoint to the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. But it also winnows the list of applicants to the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission, which draws the political boundaries once a decade.
In the past, parties have routinely accused the IRC of gerrymandering districts.
In the past few years, Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, has accused Gov. Doug Ducey of stacking CACA with his Republican allies to ensure the redistricting process will result in Republicans majorities at the state Capitol and in Arizona’s congressional delegation, even as Arizona increases turns purple in its political makeup.
“In order to retain that power, [Republicans] have to ensure that the people drawing the map for these legislative and congressional districts are going to be acting in their best interests rather than in the interest of drawing fair maps,” he said.
Quezada, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with providing initial recommendations for Senate appointments to CACA, pointed out that the governor has not appointed any Democrat and rarely ever appointed people of color to the commission.
The Arizona Constitution requires CACA to reflect the diversity of the state, and Quezada argues its current makeup does not. The commission is made up of seven Republicans and five independents, and only one person of color.
CACA is supposed to have 15 total members – five attorneys and 10 members of the public. Currently, it has three vacancies, and one term expired last month. But Democrats’ biggest complaint is that not one member is a Democrat.
While most states allow elected lawmakers to draw their legislative and congressional districts, Arizona’s five-person IRC – made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent chair who is the swing vote – creates the political maps.
Democrats fear this means Republicans and independents on the commission, all of whom have strong right-leaning views, could sway the IRC’s decisions by narrowing down a long list of applicants for the IRC and picking candidates who are political allies.
Matthew Contorelli was the VP of government affairs at the Arizona Commerce Authority when Ducey appointed him in 2019. He is also the son-in-law of Rep. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott. And Kathryn Townsend was a GOP precinct committeeman up until 2012.
CACA will winnow the hundreds of applicants to a list of 25 nominees — 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independents. The Senate president, House speaker, Senate minority leader and House minority leader each picks one partisan member for the IRC. Those four commissioners will then pick the IRC chair from the list of five independents that CACA selects.
In theory, this means the commission’s ideological makeup is equal – two registered Republicans, two registered Democrats and a registered independent.
In practice, Democrats could be ideologically right-leaning, Republicans could be left-leaning and the independent on the commission could lean either way.
For example, Republicans viewed the last redistricting go-round as a win for Democrats.
And if CACA can winnow the hundreds of applicants to allow only five right-leaning independents to proceed, the prevailing sentiment is it’s game over for Democrats during redistricting.
The Senate confirmed Ducey’s three most recent picks to the commission on Feb. 18. The vote occurred along party lines, but Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said Ducey failed to comply don’t comply with the Arizona Constitution’s diversity clause.
That clause says “the makeup of the committee shall, to the extent feasible, reflect the diversity of the population of the state.”
“We believe that this process amounts to a disregard of your constitutional duty as described in Article 6, Section 36. We demand that you withdraw the most recent nominees you have sent to the Legislature and, instead, adopt a constitutionally compliant process intended to ‘endeavor to see that the commission reflects the diversity of Arizona’s population,’” they told Ducey in a letter.
Senate Republicans reject the Democrats’ argument.
Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said in a committee hearing last year that Democrats are judging nominees based on the color of their skin rather than on merit.
“None of them said they weren’t qualified. They just questioned, in essence, their race or their gender,” Gray said.
His fellow Republican members on the committee, and also Ducey’s Office, have argue there are other ways to determine “diversity.”
Ducey’s general counsel, Anni Foster, wrote an op-ed in 2019 to defend Bill Montgomery’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and insisted the commission is diverse.
“As an example of the diversity this process affords, the commission currently includes several veterans, a mother who was the first in her family to attend college, a retiree, a public lawyer and private attorneys, to name a few,” she wrote.
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said the Governor’s Office believes it is important to find representation from parts of Arizona outside Maricopa County. CACA rules state no more than two members may hail from the same county.
Ptak said the numerous nominations from last April show they comply with diversity and said there’s no requirement that a Democrat has to be on the commission.
“The party requirement only limits appointments to five members of the same party. It makes no other requirements,” Ptak said, referring specifically to the requirement that says no more than half of the non-attorneys on the commission can come from the same party.
Ducey’s three recent appointees are Jonathan Paton, a former lawmaker; Laura Ciscomani, who is from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and wife of a Ducey staffer; and Horace Buchanan Davis, the former state director for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake. All are re-appointments, and all are Republicans.
Paton was the Senate Judiciary Chair during the leadup to the 2010 redistricting effort, which political pundits widely considered a big win for the Democrats.
Constantin Querard, a GOP political consultant, said how this works is part of the political game.
“The great con in the Independent Redistricting Commission was selling people on the idea that this was going to take politics out of politics,” he said.
Querard said it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican as governor, it’s still going to be very political. He pointed to the 2010 redistricting process, when Gov. Janet Napolitano made her appointments to the commission and Democrats “won” redistricting.
CACA in 2010 narrowed the field of independent candidates to five and Colleen Mathis, who was more Democratic-leaning, was picked as IRC chair. And before that there was Steve Lynn, the 2001 IRC chair, who was more Republican-leaning.
Mathis routinely voted with the commission’s two Democrats and against its two GOP members. The result was districts that Republicans alleged were crafted to benefit Democrats, especially in the congressional map, which Mathis and a Democratic commissioner were alleged to have drawn with the assistance of the Arizona Democratic Party.
The GOP-dominated Legislature impeached Mathis, an action that the Arizona Supreme Court later reversed.
“When you have Democratic governors, the commission lo and behold magically favors Democrats by three to two,” Querard said. “As traditional as it is for the process to be political, it is equally traditional for the party out of power to decry politics.”
It’s clear Ducey has long had his eye on the IRC, and has been working to ensure that the state’s Republican majority extends beyond his governorship.
Ducey — with the help of former Chief of Staff Kirk Adams, who was speaker of the House during the last redistricting cycle — made his first appointments to the commission just mere days after swearing in as governor in 2015.
Since he was first elected as governor, Ducey has appointed or reappointed 21 people to CACA. Only one was a Democrat – Monica Klapper, a lawyer originally appointed by former Gov. Jan Brewer. When Klapper’s term expired last year, she was replaced by a Republican.
At one point, Quezada accused Ducey’s Office of imposing an early January deadline for applicants to the commission at the last minute to try to winnow out Democrats who might apply, potentially disadvantaging the minority party.
“There was very little advertisement and a short deadline,” Quezada said. “What that implies to me is the Ninth Floor is identifying individuals, prepping them beforehand, getting them the time to get that [application] done, and then establishing a short window for applications.”