An attorney for Republican interests argued Wednesday that maps drawn just last year for the state's 30 legislative districts are illegal and should be scrapped.
David Cantelme told the three-judge panel the Independent Redistricting Commission broke the law when it created districts with varying populations despite state and federal laws generally requiring all voting districts to have approximately the same number of people. The commission's maps have a difference of more than 8 percent between the most and least-populated districts.
Attorney Mary O'Grady did not dispute the disparities.
But she said there is legal flexibility to that equal-population requirement if differences are needed to meet other legitimate state goals. And one of those, O'Grady said, is to comply with requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act that the commission do nothing to dilute minority voting strength.
Cantelme disputed the legal basis for that argument, at one point calling it a "fig leaf'' to hide what he said are the motives behind the illegal maps. And he told the judges he intends to prove that the only reason for the population differences is to give Democrats an unfair edge.
Wednesday's hearing technically was on O'Grady's request for the court to throw out Cantelme's lawsuit. No actual evidence was presented.
But the judges' ruling, expected within weeks, will determine whether Cantelme gets to make his case -- and gets a chance to convince the court that the districts are so legally flawed that the Independent Redistricting Commission has to start the year-long process over again in time for the 2014 election.
Hanging in the balance could be how many Democrats can get elected to a Legislature that has for years been under Republican control.
Prior to 2000, state lawmakers themselves drew lines for legislative and congressional districts, a process that often led to incumbents, particularly in the majority party, crafting lines that favored their own reelection.
That year voters instead created a five-member commission charged with eliminating that political influence.
The lawsuit says the latest commission deliberately sought to create as many districts favorable to Democrats as possible.
Cantelme said it's illegal for the commission to have pushed as many Republicans as possible into Republican-dominated districts to leave as many as possible safe for Democrats. More to the point, he said the commission did that by over-populating GOP districts and under-populating the Democratic ones.
As an example, he cited District 8 which runs from Oracle and San Manuel through Coolidge and Florence into the San Tan Valley and up through Globe. Democrats have a 10-point registration edge over Republicans.
Cantelme said that was accomplished by creating a district with a population of 208,422 which is more than 4,600 less than what each district should have if there were an equal number of people in each. Those drawn out of the district, he said, were Republicans.
He said that should have been a politically competitive district rather than one largely favorable to Democrats.
O'Grady said that population differences exist for a variety of reasons.
One is that requirement under federal law that states do nothing to dilute minority voting strength. That means it cannot reduce the number of districts where minorities have a reasonable chance of selecting state representatives and senators of their own choosing.
She also said the 2000 ballot measure imposes other mandates on the commission, including creating as many politically competitive districts as possible. O'Grady said that, too, required some adjustment of district lines -- and populations.
Perhaps most significant, O'Grady said even if the commission drew the lines with partisan considerations, that is not a violation of federal law. And that, she said, means Cantelme cannot ask a federal court to void the maps.
Judge Roslyn Silver seemed to agree. She said the U.S. Supreme Court has given "great deference'' to legislative bodies in redistricting -- and that partisanship is "inevitable.''
But Neil Wake, another judge on the panel, said it appears that the commission could have met its other goals without the adjustments in district population that Cantelme said has created the unfair situation for Republicans.
Silver said if the court allows Cantelme to pursue his case, the trial must be held no later than March 25. She said that provides enough time for the commission to have the required public hearings and draw new maps if the court finds the current ones legally flawed.