Wednesday, January 11, 2012
High Court Justices Tackle Redistricting Uncertainty
By a MetNews Staff Writer
State Supreme Court justices tackled issues of jurisdiction and constitutional interpretation yesterday as they waded into the thicket of state legislative redistricting.
At expedited arguments, heard in San Francisco and broadcast live over cable television and the Internet via the California Channel, an attorney representing Republican activists urged the court to create alternative districts for the upcoming election of state senators.
“The people’s right to referendum is sufficiently important that this court should consider other maps besides the commission’s map,” Sacramento lawyer Charles Bell told the high court.
But counsel for the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission said there isn’t enough time to draw a whole new set of maps and urged the commission to rely on the commission’s maps.
Bell’s clients are seeking a referendum on the Senate maps, as provided for by Proposition 11, approved by voters in 2008. In July, the 14-member commission approved final versions of the district maps for Congress, the state Assembly and Senate, and the state Board of Equalization, which administers sales and use taxes.
The maps were certified Aug. 15. Constitutional challenges to the Senate and congressional maps were summarily rejected by the high court last year, but Proposition 11 allows opponents to stay the maps, pending a voter referendum, by collecting signatures from registered voters numbering five percent of the vote in the last election for governor.
Republicans spent well over $1 million to try to collect the necessary 504,760 valid voter signatures. A total of more than 711,000 were submitted.
The secretary of state reported at yesterday’s deadline that a total of 34,093 signatures had been examined by election officials, using random sampling techniques, and 26,221, or 72.17 percent, had been validated.
Applying that percentage to the total results in an estimate that more than 513,000 signatures are valid. But because that number is less than 110 percent of the requirement, the law requires that every signature be checked in order for the referendum to qualify.
Yesterday’s arguments thus centered in part on whether the referendum is “likely to qualify,” as the term is used in Proposition 11, and whether the court must, as a jurisdictional matter, find such a likelihood before it can intervene.
Bell argued that historically, when the estimated number of valid signatures is as much as 101 percent of the requirement, the measure survives a full signature check. But Justice Ming Chin wondered aloud what action the court can take when a full signature check will not be completed until late February or early March.
The nominating period for the 20 Senate seats up for election this year—half of the 40 senators are to be elected for four-year terms—is to run from Feb. 13 to March 9. Bell, however, suggested that the period could be “compressed” following approval of new, temporary districts.
Bell suggested three alternatives: the existing 2001 districts with “tweaks,” a “nesting” plan in which each Senate district would consist of two of the commission-approved Assembly districts, or a map offered by a consultant hired by the plaintiffs, former GOP legislative staffer Tony Quinn.
Commission attorney James Brosnahan, however, argued that the best, if not the only, path available to the court is to use the commission maps pending the referendum.
Brosnahan said the court would be speculating, rather than ruling on the basis of fact, if it concluded that the referendum is likely to qualify when the full signature count is completed. And even if the court makes such a finding, none of Bell’s alternatives meet constitutional muster, he said.
Bell, however, said that the 2001 maps would work if the court adjusted the boundaries of three districts whose populations deviate from the average by a greater amount than allowed under past Supreme Court decisions.
He also defended the nesting plan, which was questioned by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. The chief justice suggested that the plan cannot be adopted because it would affect Monterey County, one of four counties in the state where election law changes are subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.
Bell said there would be no problem because there would be no effective impact on Latino voting rights, which would be the only Voting Rights Act problem applicable to that county.
Brosnahan, however, said that population shifts in the last decade have rendered the old map unusable under the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one-person, one-vote” standard, he said. And while the nesting plan meets that hurdle, he said, there was no showing that it meets the other requirements of Proposition 11, which include Voting Rights Act compliance, representation of communities of interest, and maintaining existing local government boundaries where possible.
Deputy Attorney General George Waters, representing Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said his client was operating under “enormous time pressure,” despite the expedit expedited schedule. While it would be possible to consider alternative maps “if the information is already in a database,” he said, if the court waits until the completion of the full signature count, “the only practical option...will be the commission map.”
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company