By Phil Willon and Melanie Mason
March 8, 2015
A U.S. Supreme Court case that could force California to redraw its congressional districts has stirred up fears of a return to partisan gerrymandering, a divisive process that has been criticized for both cementing and crushing political careers.
While the potential impact remains uncertain, both Democratic and Republican leaders agree that the ruling could solidify the Democrats’ tight grip on California’s 53-member House delegation, the largest of any state.
The issue stems from a lawsuit filed by Arizona’s Republican-led Legislature arguing that the Constitution gives state legislatures the exclusive responsibility for drawing congressional district boundaries. Arizona and California voters have passed measures removing that authority from lawmakers and handing it over to independent citizen commissions.
It was an utterly corrupt situation, one in which the inherent, unescapable conflict of interest was egregious. – Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, of giving state lawmakers full redistricting power
But the court’s conservative justices appeared skeptical of the constitutionality of such commissions during arguments Monday. If the Supreme Court strikes down the citizen panels, the task of remapping California’s congressional districts would return to the Democratic-controlled Legislature, albeit with the blessing of fellow Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown, who wields veto power.
Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson said Tuesday that Democrats in the past used that power to gerrymander district lines to help expand their numbers, protect entrenched incumbents and undercut the GOP.
“It was an utterly corrupt situation, one in which the inherent, unescapable conflict of interest was egregious,” said Wilson, who joined with former Republican Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Deukmejian in a brief to the Supreme Court to argue in favor of independent redistricting panels.
Wilson, using his veto power, waged a bitter battle with the Legislature’s Democratic leadership in the early 1990s that put redistricting in the hands of the California Supreme Court.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, cautioned that it’s too early to speculate about how the pending court decision could affect the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Still, he said, if the authority over drawing congressional boundaries returns to the California Legislature, “that wouldn’t be bad” for Democrats.
“The state of California is more Democratic, by [voter] registration and also by people whose politics are in concert with the Democrats,” Burton said.
Whoever has the power in the Legislature is going to want to keep that power. – Angelo Ancheta, member of the redistricting commission
Michael Wagaman, a Democratic consultant on redistricting, said he did not expect legislative Democrats to drastically alter district lines even if California’s independent panel is declared unconstitutional. In part, that’s because the current congressional map is treating them well.
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