By Jim Sanders
Published: Wednesday, Jul. 20, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

California’s first-ever citizens redistricting commission is bracing for a half-million-dollar court fight over new legislative and congressional districts it hasn’t finished drawing yet.

Days before release of final maps, the commission is arming itself with legal counsel to battle challenges that some communities or ethnic groups have been shortchanged.

The California Republican Party and a former Democratic leader of the state Senate, Don Perata, are among critics laying groundwork for potential challenges to all or some of 80 Assembly, 40 state Senate, 53 congressional and four Board of Equalization districts set for release July 28.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any lack of challenge to the final work product,” Perata said.

The GOP is eyeing the possibility of a signature-gathering campaign to place district maps before voters next year, while Perata said he is talking to “at least five different groups” about filing suit.

California’s political districts are being drawn for the first time by a citizens commission created by passage of Proposition 11 in 2008 to strip legislators of the right to draw their own districts.

Creation of the panel, whose authority was expanded to include congressional maps, was partly a backlash to a deal struck by legislative leaders in 2001 to draw districts that protected incumbents of both parties.

“This is a very political process where there are winners and losers,” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “And losers tend to sue.”

But Maria Blanco, a Democrat on the 14-member panel, said, “I think the public would really resent paying money for what might be a very transparently political lawsuit.”

The commission, which voters also empowered to defend its maps, is interviewing attorneys for a one-year legal defense contract for up to $500,000.

District boundaries can affect whether a Democrat or Republican has an edge in each district, potentially altering partisan balance in the Legislature or the state’s congressional delegation.

State law requires the commission to consider population, groups with similar interests, minority voting blocs, and factors such as existing city and county boundaries.

Tom Del Beccaro, state GOP chairman, claims the panel has been “overtaken by partisanship and incompetence” in hiring legal and line-drawing advisers, and in drawing political districts, some of which he considers oddly shaped and unfair.

“It’s either shenanigans or they’re doing a terrible job,” he said. “We can’t afford either one.”

Del Beccaro said he is concerned about draft proposals that analysts say would give Democrats a strong chance to gain a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and Senate.

Political analyst Tony Quinn, a former GOP legislative staffer, said the panel’s recent fine-tuning consistently has benefited Democrats.

“They started out with districts that were not that bad – and then they’ve ruined them as they’ve gone along,” Quinn said.

Kathay Feng, director of California Common Cause, which helped pass Proposition 11, said the map-drawing process has been fair and open.

“At every step of the way, as people ask questions, the body that’s drawing lines has been responsive.”

The commission, by law, has five Democrats and five Republicans. The remaining four members are independent or minor-party voters. Approval requires support from three members of each bloc. A vote is planned Aug. 15.

Commissioner Stan Forbes said the panel is prohibited from purposely tilting districts left or right.

“People who are used to drawing partisan lines just don’t get it, that we’re not drawing partisan lines,” he said. “They’re so used to looking at it in that context.”

Perata, a Democrat who led the campaign against Proposition 11, said the lawsuit he is discussing with various groups would likely contend that the voting power of minorities will be diluted by the new districts.

Perata declined to name the groups but said participants do not include members of the Legislature or Congress.

Contacted separately, officials of Latino, African American and Asian-Pacific Islander groups that have been active in redistricting said that no decision has been made on challenging new maps.

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