California’s Supreme Court grappled with how far into the political morass it should wade in a fight over state redistricting maps. No easy question. The justices are not deciding whether the new Citizens Redistricting Commission map is the appropriate one, but rather, which temporary map to use IF the current ballot referendum challenging the commission map qualifies for voter review. And whether the court should select an alternate at all.
Back in 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, then in 2010 continued by passing Proposition 20, which stripped the legislature of the power to draw poltical boundaries and handed it to a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission for state Senate and Assembly districts.
The measures amended both the California Constitution and state law.
Proposition 20 allowed for voters to veto thecitizen commission’s work by qualifying a referendum for the ballot.
Just such a petition was circulated and received 710,000 signatures but has not yet be qualified for the ballot by the Secretary of State, Deborah Bowen. Although slightly over 500,000 are needed to qualify for the ballot, the rejection rate for signatures is quite high and that leaves up in the air the question of whether this petition will qualify.
If it appears “likely” the measure will qualify, the court has authority to stay implementation of the commission map until voters have had a chance to vote on it.
Justices peppered both sides with questions of what the Prop. 20 language of “likely to qualify” means for the court. And if justices do stay implementation of the map, what do they put in its place?
Jim Brosnahan, attorney for the commission, pointed out that use of 2001 maps would impose outdated boundaries, based on population shifts, that it would violate the Constitution’s “one-man, one-vote” protections. The same is true of a second alternate that calls for “nesting” some districts in other existing districts to adjust for population changes.
Deputy Attorney General George Waters, representing Bowen, argued that it is already too late for the court to order implementation of alternative maps for the June primary election and even the November general election. He urged the court to allow the commission map to remain in place even as the ballot challenge goes forward.
Justice Goodwin Liu asked Waters, “Can’t we, at this point, say [the ballot challenge] is likely to qualify?”
Justice Kathryn Wedegar wanted to know if they court needs to define “likely to qualify” and whether any action it may take is “tethered” to that?
Justice Joyce Kennard asked if the court should construe “likely to qualify” as meaning “sufficiently likely” and if that is enough for the court to pick a map.
Charles Bell, attorney for the map challengers, said the court has the power to act and there are three alternative maps it could impose in the interim.
But the map of the citizen’s commission must be stayed and cannot be used once the court decides the ballot challenge is “likely to qualify” for the ballot.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye questioned not only the potential voting rights act violations but also the special case of Monterey County, which is under Justice Department supervision of its voting practices for potential violation of the Voting Rights Act. She said at least one of the alternate maps would put Monterey in violation of the act.
Brosnahan offered that nothing should prevent the court from selecting the commission map on an interim basis while voters decide the ballot challenge. He pointed out the commission held rounds of public hearings and meetings to establish the appropriate boundary lines.
The court must rule within 90 days but due to election deadlines, it is likely to move even more quickly on this case.
Case: Vandermost v. Bowen No. S198387