A federal court is going to give Republicans a chance to argue that the state's 30 legislative districts should be redrawn for the 2014 election.
A special three-judge panel rejected arguments by attorneys for the Independent Redistricting Commission that there is no legal basis for the lawsuit challenging the lines. U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver, writing for the court, said the challengers are entitled to try to prove that the commission purposely crafted the districts with an eye on improving Democratic opportunities.
But Silver cautioned that even if foes prove partisanship, it remains legally unclear whether that, by itself, is enough to invalidate the lines. She said that issue will have to be hashed out by the attorneys after a full-blown hearing.
The ruling could eventually undo the significant gains the Democrats made this election at the Capitol, picking up four seats in both the House and the Senate. If the judges order the lines redrawn -- or perhaps even does it themselves -- it could put Republicans into a better position two years from now.
Commission attorney Mary O'Grady on Monday downplayed the significance of the ruling. O'Grady said while she had hoped to get the case tossed entirely, the decision does not mean the court ultimately will side with the challengers.
Central to the legal fight is a requirement that all 30 districts have equal population. Using 2010 census figures, that should come out to about 213,000 in each of the districts.
But the Independent Redistricting Commission, by its own admission, had districts ranging from 203,026 to 220,157.
What's worse, according to attorney David Cantelme, is many of those adjustments were made for political purposes.
In essence, he said, the commission "packed'' Republican voters into some districts. That left underpopulated districts -- but districts which gave Democrats a better chance of winning.
O'Grady told the court there were legitimate reasons for moving the original lines, including protecting minority voting strength and creating as many politically competitive districts as possible. Both are part of the 2000 constitutional amendment which took the decennial task of drawing lines away from the Legislature and gave it to the five-member commission.
Silver, however, said the opponents deserve their day in court.
"Regardless of what they can prove at trial, plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the commission added to some people's votes and diluted other people's votes based only on their expected party preference,'' she wrote.
But Silver conceded that, even if that is the case, the court may not be able to do anything about it.
"Under existing Supreme Court precedent, it is unclear whether pure partisanship is an arbitrary or discriminatory purpose and would therefore be an impermissible basis for population deviation,'' the judge wrote.
Conversely, Silver said the court has to decide whether the voter-approved state law which created the commission even allows the panel to consider partisanship. And she pointed out that, no matter what federal law allows, "the Arizona Constitution mandates equal population in the redistricting process.''
The ruling clears a hurdle toward the bid by challengers for a full-blown hearing on the legal questions -- and soon.
Silver noted that if she and her colleagues disallow the current lines, they could direct the redistricting commission to start over, this time following different legal procedures. And given the time it takes to start from scratch, she wants a hearing by the end of March.
There also is the legal opportunity for the three-judge panel to redraw the lines themselves. But that process generally occurs only when there is no time for a full-blown redistricting process. And it usually is for only one election cycle while the redistricting commission works on new maps.
There are two other legal challenges to the redistricting process in the works, though both involve the lines for the state's nine congressional districts.
In one case also in federal court, Republican state lawmakers contend that the U.S. Constitution requires that congressional districts be drawn only by the Legislature. They said that makes the actions of the commission invalid, even though voters amended the Arizona Constitution to create the panel.
No hearing has been set in that case.
The other, in state court, charges the commission with misconduct in crafting the maps. A judge threw that case out but gave challengers a chance to refile.