By Melanie Mason and Patrick McGreevy
May 27, 2015

In recent years, California voters have backed a series of changes to the state’s elections system to reshape its political landscape. Now, potential upheaval is brewing again, this time from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Next month, the nation’s highest court will rule on a case challenging the legality of independent commissions to draw congressional districts. On Tuesday, the court said it would consider whether state and local voting districts should be based on total population or eligible voters.

Both cases could have enormous implications in California, where voters first approved citizen-led redistricting panels nearly seven years ago and where the state’s burgeoning immigrant population has contoured the political map, regardless of eligibility to vote.

Should the Supreme Court issue rulings overhauling the redistricting process, it would be a “one-two punch to the gut to California,” said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University.

California has adopted a “top-two” primary system, altered legislative term limits and created an independent redistricting panel to strip partisanship from the crafting of political maps. All those changes were approved by voters.

“We have now gone through a decade of voters supporting major electoral reforms in order to try to bring our state Legislature and congressional delegation to a place where we feel they’re more responsive and much more functional,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, an advocacy group that backed such measures.

But that may not stop the Supreme Court — which has shown an eagerness to take on big electoral cases — from upending things.

The fate of the citizen redistricting commission hangs most directly in the balance, pending a decision by the court in June about whether such panels are legally allowed to determine congressional districts.

If the court strikes down independent commissions, it could set off a scramble in the Legislature to redraw California’s congressional map. (Legislative districts, which were also determined by the citizens panel, would not be affected).

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