PHOENIX — Bested 5-4 in last year's congressional races, Republican legislative leaders want a federal court to immediately give them the power to draw the lines for 2014.
In new court filings Friday, attorneys for lawmakers point out the U.S. Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to decide the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections. They contend that overrides the 2000 decision by voters to give that power, along with drawing legislative boundaries, to the five-member Independent Redistricting Commission.
With candidates now starting to explore congressional races — including current state House Speaker Andy Tobin — the lawyers want a three-judge panel to bar use of the lines the commission adopted for the 2012 race. That's the one where Democrats took five of the state's nine congressional seats.
More to the point, the legislators want the portion of that 2000 initiative dealing with congressional races overturned. And that would return Arizona to the way it was before, with lawmakers from the majority party deciding where to draw the lines.
Tobin said Monday he envisions a special legislative session this fall to re-craft the districts if the court sides with challengers.
He said the lawsuit has nothing to do with the outcome of the 2012 races using the lines the commission drew following the 2010 census. Tobin said he always has opposed the idea of the non-elected commission crafting boundaries, but was not in the Legislature in 2002 or in a position to contest what happened then.
But Tobin conceded there was little interest by Republicans in challenging the process at that time because the lines drawn a decade ago were probably more favorable to the GOP. The work of latest commission — new members are named every decade — was decidedly different.
“The truth is, this Independent Redistricting Commission was stolen,” he said.
Tobin also said his interest is unrelated to the fact he does not live in the congressional district where he wants to run, the one currently represented by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.
Federal law does not require candidates to live in their own districts, though not being a resident can be a political disadvantage. But the House speaker, who would have some sway in drawing new lines if that power were returned to the Legislature, said he was objecting to the commission's work in 2011, long before he was weighing federal office.
Political issues aside, commission attorney Joe Kanefield said the challenge will fail.
He acknowledged the federal constitutional language. But he said that's missing the point.
“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has made clear that the term refers to the entire lawmaking process of the state, and not just the state's legislative body,” he wrote in his own legal filings. He said the voters, as the ultimate source of authority in Arizona, are free to delegate the legislative duties of redistricting to the commission.
Hanging in the balance is the political makeup of the state's congressional delegation.
The lines drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature up through the 2000 election gave Democrats just one of the six seats the state had at that time.
In 2002, the first election after voters approved Proposition 106 creating the commission, Republicans took six of the eight seats. But the balance fluctuated during the decade, with two years where Democrats had five of the eight seats, though it bounced back to 5-3 Republican in the 2010 race.
After redistricting and a new seat, Democrats took a 5-4 edge.
In their latest court filing, attorneys for the Legislature argue that there can be limits on their ability to draw district boundaries. That can even include a citizen referendum to veto what lawmakers have adopted.
But they said there is no legal basis to exclude the Legislature entirely, as was done by voters in 2000, and give those power to “an unelected, non-representative body.”
Commission members are not elected. Four are selected by top elected legislators from each major party, with those four choosing a fifth, presumably a political independent, to chair the panel.
Much of the latest GOP unhappiness relates to that choice of Colleen Mathis as chair.
While she was a registered independent, her husband worked to elect a Democratic legislator, something Mathis did not initially disclose. Republicans charge that on all controversial issues Mathis sided with the two Democrat commissioners.
A separate lawsuit playing out in Maricopa County Superior Court also seeks to overturn the congressional boundaries drawn by the commission.
But that case is based on claims the commission did not follow procedures. And even if challengers win, that would simply send the maps back to the same commission to redraw.
A third lawsuit in federal court seeks to overturn the lines the panel drew for the state's 30 legislative districts. Plaintiffs in that case, all Republican interests, say the commission created districts of unequal population to give Democrats a political edge.