California officials praise Supreme Court ruling on independent redistricting commissions

A reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Political reformers in California and Arizona and the voters who supported them won a big round at the Supreme Court on Monday, when the justices upheld the use of independent redistricting commissions to draw election districts for members of Congress.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices said the Constitution did not prevent states from taking this power away from elected politicians and lodging it in the hands of a nonpartisan board.

The goal is to prevent partisan gerrymandering where lawmakers draw safe seats for their friends and allies. Arizona’s Republican Legislature went to court to challenge the decision of their voters, but they fell one vote short at the high court. …

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Court Case Pits Voting Rights of ‘Citizens’ Against ‘Residents’

From the San Diego Union-Tribute, written by Steven Greenhut:

California legislators have over the years been softening the distinction between citizens and noncitizens through a variety of measures that make it harder to deport unauthorized immigrants — and provide them with access to state programs.

While a U.S. Supreme Court case won’t affect a state’s right to pass such measures, it could force state officials to make a firm distinction between citizens and noncitizens in divvying up electoral districts. This Texas voting-rights case, known as Evenwel v. Abbott, could shift power away from poorer, immigrant-heavy urban areas to wealthier and more Republican counties — and from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Legal experts were surprised when, last month, the court decided to accept the case. Critics of that decision, including Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, argue it “could lead to a system of political segregation that only counts three-fifths of our population — and essentially ignores the rest.”

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High Court to Decide Whether Legislators Must Draw District Lines

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to dissect an obscure constitutional provision that could prohibit independent commissions from drawing district lines for congressional elections and reassign the task to partisan state legislatures — not just in Arizona, where the case originated, but in California as well.

A broad ruling in favor of the Arizona Legislature, which challenged the redistricting commission created by state voters in 2000, also could overturn other voter-approved state laws that govern federal elections, such as California’s “top two” initiative that established open primary elections followed by runoffs between the two leading vote-getters, regardless of party.

The case is more about power than partisanship. Lining up behind Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature is the National Conference of State Legislatures, which includes California’s Democratic-dominated state house.

On the other side, along with the Obama administration …

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Redistricting commission dodging questions

During its press conference Friday announcing the release of redistricting maps, the Citizens Redistricting Commission evaded tough questions and refused to explain why one commissioner, Michael Ward of Fullerton, voted earlier in the day against moving all of the final maps to the public for review.

At the podium, Ward declined to explain his vote, but in a short interview with CalWatchdog afterwards said that he had explained his concerns at the appropriate time earlier in the day and was not sure about the legal ramifications of his sharing his concerns. According to published reports, Ward said “I’m sad to find myself compelled to vote no. In my opinion, the commission failed to fulfill its mandate to strictly apply constitutional criteria and consistently applied race and ‘community of interest’ criteria and sought to diminish dissenting viewpoints.”

Ward made it clear to CalWatchdog that he stands by such concerns and is waiting to see how the process proceeds. The commission will vote to adopt what they call “preliminary final maps” in an Aug. 15 meeting. Other commissioners who spoke said that the commission has exhausted its public review process and will indeed vote to approve the new district lines for U.S. Congress, state Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization.

As the commission explains on its Web site, “In November 2008, California voters authorized the creation of the Citizens Redistricting Commission when they passed the Voters FIRST Act, which appeared as Proposition 11. Prior to 2008, California legislators drew the districts.” The goal was to take partisanship out of the redistricting process, yet the new commissioners have been dogged by allegations of inappropriate political activism and conflicts of interest.

An exclusive CalWatchdog series by reporter John Hrabe “reveals that at least one commissioner, Dr. Gabino T. Aguirre, has made multiple political campaign contributions to Democratic candidates — contributions that were previously undisclosed to the Commission; a long history of political activism in support of Latino causes; and an extensive web of connections to a special interest group that has submitted its own redistricting proposals to the commission.”

Hrabe also revealed that “a second member … ,  Jeanne Raya, failed to disclose financial contributions made within the past 18 months to a state political campaign committee . …” Somehow, a commission designed to be nonpartisan and charged with designing fair election districts, allowed left-wing political activists with an apparent political agenda to be among its members and to allegedly use the process to create districts that favor their political outlooks.

Based on the CalWatchdog revelations, California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro called on Aguirre to resign from the post for what he termed “gross misconduct in office.” Del Beccaro questioned the fairness of a commission that failed to disclose the political activism of its members.

When one reported asked about allegations of impropriety by Aguirre, Galambos Malloy said, “All of our commissioners have conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and impartiality.” They did not address any of the specific concerns raised by the news reports and by the Republican leadership.

The commission also has been criticized by minority activist groups for not putting together enough Latino-dominant districts and not paying sufficient attention to African-American “communities of interest,” even though the commission must legally follow the federal Voting Rights Act, which dictates rules that enhance minority voting power.

At the press conference, commissioners refused to answer tough questions and focused mainly on their own sacrifices. “If anything was sacrificed in the process, it was our personal lives,” said Michelle DiGuilio of Stockton, referring to the long hours and the time spent away from her children. Vincent Barabba of Santa Cruz added that the rewards were worth the sacrifice and told a touching story about the way that Californians have embraced their diversity.

But when it came to questions about dissent, they kept repeating the mantra about this being an open and transparent process. It seemed more like a photo op than an opportunity to provide details about the inner workings of a commission that has much to say about the future politics of this state.

Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative Flashreport, argued Friday morning that the “The commission is likely to spend a good portion of today patting themselves on the back for a job well done. They certainly do deserve credit for spending as much time as they did on this project over the past eight months . …  However, the process was not a smooth one at all.” Fleischman points to self-interested agendas of commission members, unclear handling of Voting Rights Act rules and cast doubts on the much-touted openness of the process.

Commissioners seem to be gearing up for legal challenges and public scrutiny, and those surely will come in the ensuing weeks. Barabba argued that if the lines are that bad, then Californians can challenge them through the state Supreme Court or can launch a referendum drive. Those challenges surely are coming, and it will be interesting to hear what Ward has to say as redistricting critics get into gear.

 

This was originally posted and investigated by our friends over at CalWatchdog.