Supremes Won't Block Redistricting Maps

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California's state Senate map is now set for 2012, after a 7-0 Supreme Court ruling. (Photo: CRC Map)

If the state Senate districts drawn by California's new citizens redistricting panel are going to be erased and redrawn this decade, it will only happen if a referendum qualifies for the November ballot and voters agree.

That's because the final legal attempt by GOP activists to block the map was resoundingly rejected Friday morning by the California Supreme Court.

The court's 92 page ruling offers a fascinating look into what happens when something as politically charged as redistricting slams into the preternaturally cautious world of the courts. And all seven justices agreed that even if the wording of 2010's Proposition 20 means the Citizens Redistricting Commission's map is legally "stayed" when a referendum qualifies, none of the alternative lines offered to them are as good as the ones drawn by the panel itself.

"The Commission's certified state Senate map is the alternative most consistent with the constitutional scheme and criteria embodied in the federal and state Constitutions," wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye on behalf of the Court.

There is some surprise to the ruling, at least for those of us who watched and reported on oral arguments on January 10. The final decision seems to suggest a shift in the justices' thinking on the first of the two questions in this case: does Prop 20 require legal intervention when a referendum is "likely to qualify?"

While comments from several justices during oral arguments seemed to suggest that the threshold was important and had that it had been met, the ruling (written by the one justice who seemed skeptical during oral arguments, Cantil Sakauye) says that the Court has a role to intervene regardless of that standard:

Even when it cannot be determined from the available data how likely it is that a referendum will qualify for the ballot... a court may conclude that it is prudent to determine, at that time, which districts should be used in the event the referendum does qualify so that election officials are not left without meaningful guidance if the referendum ultimately qualifies."

But the real prickly issue, and a controversial one in the initial reaction from some Republicans, is which Senate map will be used for 2012 if the referendum qualifies (which is looking more and more likely as the signatures are verified). The plaintiff, Orange County GOP activist Julie Vandermost, suggested three options in her petition: the old 2001 districts with modifications to make them more constitutionally viable, a new map where two commission-drawn Assembly districts would be "nested" together to form a Senate district, or a newly drawn map offered by Vandermost's hired expert, former GOP redistricting consultant Tony Quinn.

The Court ruling resoundingly rejects all three options and, instead, blesses the use of the commission's work even if the referendum qualifies... by decreeing that the map, in that instance, would no longer be called a "certified commission" map but rather an "interim" map. And here, the opinion written by the chief justice comes about as close as you can get to a formal seal of approval of the citizens commission:

When a redistricting map adopted by such a nonpartisan entity is challenged by a proposed referendum measure sponsored by one political party, we believe it is unrealistic to maintain that a court should be viewed as improperly intruding into the "political thicket" if it determines, after reviewing the pros and cons of all viable alternative maps in relation to the constitutional scheme and criteria, that the map devised by the nonpartisan Commission is the most appropriate one to be used in an interim election.

And that -- in practical terms -- may be game, set, match to the commission. Yes, the referendum seems poised to qualify and, if it does, the voters may indeed reject the commission's Senate map for any reason they so choose. But the GOP campaign against the Senate map labored mightily to collect contributions just to gather signatures -- and financing a full-blown ballot measure campaign through the summer and fall wil cost much, much more. Even so, good government groups, Democrats (because the map looks good to them), and newspaper editorial boards are almost sure to now characterize the referendum as a GOP "sour grapes" exercise.

That may help explain the sharp criticism of the decision leveled by those who have fought the hardest to promote the referendum and the legal challenges.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye as Rose Bird? (Photo: AP/Paul Sakuma)

"The court’s opinion is short-sighted and disrespectful of the over 700,000 Californian’s [sic] who signed referendum petitions," said a written response from state Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), one of the referendum's financial backers.

But the ultimate angry quote came from referendum campaign manager Dave Gilliard. "Sadly," his statement says, "the Chief Justice applied a flawed, politically-based precedent established by former Chief Justice Rose Bird, who was removed from office by the voters for repeatedly ignoring the constitution and the will of the voters."

The likening of Chief Justice Cantil Sakauye, appointed by a Republican governor (as were six of the seven justices on the Court) to the late Bird -- appointed by then/now Governor Jerry Brown, and whose role in a 1982 redistricting fight was only a portion of what fueled the bitter campaign that removed her from the bench -- drew what sounded like the cyber-equivalent of gasps from a handful of state GOP Twitters.

"Oh good grief," tweeted GOP strategist Matt Rexroad, one of the state's most savvy redistricting experts. He later tweeted that the GOP effort's setbacks may leave some lingering intraparty rumbles. "Lots of opportunity cost with the time and energy put into this failed effort," wrote Rexroad.

And so there are only two remaining hurdles for the entire work product of the 14 member commission to be set in stone: the Senate referendum itself, assuming it qualifies, and a federal court challenge to the panel's map for California's congressional districts. That challenge, say observers, is a long shot -- given the state's high court has already rejected the same argument, and given the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice recently cleared all of the commission's maps on their adherence to the federal Voting Rights Act... the same standard by which the lawsuit argues the congressional map is flawed.

Tweets from this morning from me and others via Storify:

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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