The Skinny

Maps and Legends

U.S. Supreme Court rejects GOP lawmakers' effort to gerrymander congressional districts

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments Monday that the state lawmakers had the exclusive power to draw congressional district boundaries and upheld the right of the voters to create the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, reminded the Republican lawmakers who wanted the power to rig elections for the GOP of "the fundamental premise that all political power flows from the people."

"The people of Arizona turned to the initiative to curb the process of gerrymandering and, thereby, to ensure that Members of Congress would have 'an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people,'" Ginsburg continued. "In so acting, Arizona voters sought to restore 'the core principle of republican government,' namely, 'that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.' The Elections Clause does not hinder that endeavor."

In the dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the "Court's position has no basis in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution, and it contradicts precedents from both Congress and this Court."

Arizona voters created the five-member redistricting commission in 2000 via a ballot initiative. Republican and Democratic leaders in the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives pick four of the five, with the fifth member picked by the four members of the commission itself. The commission draws maps for congressional and legislative districts; the court case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, challenged whether lawmakers could be stripped of their powers to draw congressional districts.

While Republicans didn't express heartburn with the commission in its first decade of existence, they worked to undermine it nearly as soon as it got to work in 2011 with various accusations of improper behavior, mostly focused on the IRC chair Colleen Coyle Mathis, a former Republican turned independent. Mathis generally sided with Democrats on the commission but the final map gave Republicans a commanding advantage in legislative districts and produced a congressional map with four safe Republican districts, two safe Democratic districts and three competitive districts. To Republicans, this outcome was a grave injustice.

In a particularly disgraceful 2011 episode, then-Gov. Jan Brewer attempted to boot Mathis from the commission under a law that allows for removal on the basis of "substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, or inability to discharge the duties of office." While every Republican in the Arizona Senate voted in favor of Mathis' removal in a "trial" that didn't even allow her to defend herself, the Arizona Supreme Court said the governor and state lawmakers had acted outside the law and reinstated Mathis.

Having lost that battle, Republican state lawmakers instead sued in federal court, maintaining that the IRC didn't have the authority to draw congressional boundaries because the U.S. Constitution says the "Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof."

Republicans were so sure they would regain the power to gerrymander maps in their own favor that they had already hired a consulting firm to draw new districts, while Democrats were considering various legal actions to keep the current boundaries in place for the 2016 elections cycle. But all that scheming was for naught because the Supreme Court rejected the Republican lawmakers' arguments earlier this week.

Arizona House Speaker David Gowan (who was rumored to be drawing up a friendly congressional district for himself) and Senate President Andy Biggs said in a written statement that they were "disappointed that the Supreme Court has decided to depart from the clear language of the Constitution. The Framers selected the elected representatives of the people to conduct congressional redistricting. It's unfortunate that the clear constitutional design has been demolished in Arizona by five lawyers at the high court."

But Democrats cheered the decision. Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (D-CD1), who is giving up her competitive seat in order to challenge Sen. John McCain next year, said she was "thrilled that the will of Arizona voters was affirmed today in our nation's highest court."

"In 2000, when voters created the independent redistricting commission, their goal was to give power back to the people and end the back-room deals by a handful of politicians," Kirkpatrick said. "Today's ruling protects that goal and closes the door once and for all on the back-room dealmakers and their power grabs."

Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-CD2), who represents one of the competitive districts, was more neutral in her comment.

"I respect the Court's decision today, and look forward to continuing to represent the people of Arizona's Second District," McSally said.

There are a handful of other Republican-led lawsuits still working their way through the courts, but with this decision, the maps are likely to stay until the 2022 election cycle.

The GOP's Supreme Disappointment

High court rules in favor of gay marriage, Affordable Care Act

The redistricting battle wasn't the only Supreme Court jiggery-pokery that disappointed Republicans in the last week. The court also ruled against GOP interests in the battle over whether middle-class Americans were eligible for subsidies on the federal healthcare exchange and by concluding that bans against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

The 6-3 King v. Burwell ruling shouldn't have even been a close call, despite all the pure applesauce that opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been spooning out. A minor drafting error, contradicted by all the other provisions of the law, is not cause for tossing a law and throwing the entire health-insurance industry into chaos.

Arizona House Speaker David Gowan and Senate President Andy Biggs decried the Obamacare decision in a joint statement: "In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged the clear meaning of that language, but then in essence said we should ignore what the law states, because of the 'context and structure of the act.'"

Yes, how absurd that a court would rely on context on interpreting a law. Are these people for real?

And big congratulations to all those who have fought for marriage equality. While those bigots who still want to treat gays and lesbians as subhuman are no doubt disappointed—Josh Kredit of the Christian conservative Center for Arizona Policy said the "historically tragic" decision meant the court "has said that children don't deserve the best opportunity to be raised by their mom and dad"—the Court reached the right decision. Love wins. 'Nuff said.

 Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel is taking a brief summer vacation and will return to the airwaves on Sunday, July 26.

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