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Supreme Court OKs independent redistricting panels

New interns run with a decision across the plaza of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday June 29, 2015. On Monday, the court upheld Arizona congressional districts drawn by an independent commission and rejected a constitutional challenge from Republican lawmakers and upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal injection executions Monday, as two dissenting justices said for the first time that they think it's "highly likely" that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.
New interns run with a decision across the plaza of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday June 29, 2015. On Monday, the court upheld Arizona congressional districts drawn by an independent commission and rejected a constitutional challenge from Republican lawmakers and upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal injection executions Monday, as two dissenting justices said for the first time that they think it's "highly likely" that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional. AP

The Supreme Court on Monday settled the electoral landscape in Arizona and California, upholding the use of voter-established independent panels to draw congressional district lines.

In a politically charged decision that some incumbent lawmakers had been dreading, and others eagerly anticipating, the court in a 5-4 decision concluded the five-member Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was consistent with the Constitution.

The decision touches California, too, because the state also has an independent redistricting commission established by the voter initiative process. If the court had struck down the Arizona commission, California’s would have been at risk, too.

“Redistricting is a legislative function, to be performed in accordance with the state’s prescriptions for lawmaking,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. “The exercise of the initiative, we acknowledge, was not at issue in our prior decisions. But...we see no constitutional barrier to a state’s empowerment of its people by embracing that form of lawmaking.”

California’s House members had feared, or anticipated, a decision in the other direction since an oral argument in March revealed some Supreme Court skepticism.

“In every state that has a commission, members of Congress have been thinking about what to do,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in an interview.

The California commission’s agenda for its June 30 meeting in Tustin, Calif., includes a closed-door discussion of the Arizona case.

The Arizona case decided Monday revolves around an interpretation of the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that the “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”

Every 10 years, following the decennial census also mandated by the Constitution, states redraw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. Flagrant gerrymandering by the majority parties in power has prompted some states to adopt reforms that diminish the partisan outcomes.

“Partisan gerrymanders, this court has recognized, are incompatible with democratic principles,” Ginsburg wrote. “It would be perverse to interpret the term ‘Legislature’ in the Elections Clause so as to exclude lawmaking by the people, particularly where such lawmaking is intended to check legislators’ ability to choose the district lines they run in.”

Legislatures alone still draw the political boundaries in 37 states. Other states use a combination of independent commissions and legislative decision-making. Idaho and Washington state use independent commissions, but legislators have wide latitude to appoint members.

Arizona and California rely on the most independent of commissions.

Once the Arizona commission draws political boundaries, the state’s Legislature cannot alter them. The commission members are selected from a narrow pool of candidates prepared by a state board that also handles appellate court appointments.

The 14 members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission are also selected with what the National Conference of State Legislatures described in a brief as “minimal input from the state legislature.”

More than 36,000 people applied to serve on the California commission. By design, the selected commissioners must include five Democrats, five Republicans and four others unaffiliated with either major party. The state’s four top legislative leaders can each veto two potential commissioners.

“Any decision by this court holding that Arizona’s redistricting process, enacted by initiative, violates federal law would place in jeopardy California’s own redistricting process,” the California commission had acknowledged in a brief.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote, joined the court’s liberal justices.

Four conservatives dissented, with Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., declaring the majority decision “has no basis in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution, and it contradicts precedents from both Congress and this Court.”

“Arizona’s Commission might be a noble endeavor, although it does not seem so ‘independent’ in practice, but the fact that a given law or procedure is efficient, convenient, and useful...will not save it if it is contrary to the Constitution,” Robert wrote.

The liberal Brennan Center for Justice declared the ruling a “major victory for voters,” while American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson said the ruling “will help Arizona put an end to political gerrymandering.”

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