Republican lawmakers voted Wednesday to spend tax dollars to go to court to challenge the maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission.
The vote, on what is likely to be the next-to-the-last day of the legislative session, comes even though two other lawsuits already have been filed — and are being financed — by outside interests. But proponents said the Legislature itself needs to file its own lawsuit, or, at the very least, formally intervene in the others.
Democrats, who voted against the measure, chided the GOP majority for wasting money, especially coming just a day after they insisted there was not enough money in the budget for things like restoring a health care program for the children of the working poor.
But House Speaker Andy Tobin said that, at the very least, there is an important constitutional question that needs to be answered.
And Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said the two issues are unrelated.
“I just can’t take any more this notion that somehow because we are going to do the business we think is legitimate to defend constitutional principles that somehow kids are going to die in the street,” he said.
Prior to 2000, lines for legislative and congressional districts were drawn by lawmakers themselves. That year voters approved creation of the five-member commission to do that every decade.
The maps created earlier this year have drawn fire from Republicans who contend they were designed to favor Democrats. More to the legal point, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said the commission broke the law by not following procedures and by “packing” Republicans into some districts.
But Rep. Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, said there is an even clearer legal issue.
He pointed out that the U.S. Constitution says that the times, places and manners of electing members of Congress “shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.”
“What could be more intrinsic to the manner of holding elections than actually drawing up the maps in which those representatives will run?” Vogt said.
“The initiative took this power from the Legislature,” he continued. “I don’t think you can do that. This needs to be litigated.”
Democrats did not see it that way.
“It is politics,” said Rep. Nicholas Fontana, D-Tucson. And Fontana, who is an attorney, said the vote makes no sense because there is nothing in the measure which spells out how much the state will have to pay.
“It is a blank check to an attorney,” he said.
And Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said Vogt and his GOP colleagues are legally off base in their contention.
Chabin acknowledged the federal constitutional language. But he said that voters, in approving the 2000 ballot measure, specifically set up the commission as a legislative body.
“Our Supreme Court has ruled that, on redistricting, the legislative body that determines that is the Independent Redistricting Commission,” he said.
Vogt, however, said he reads the U.S. Constitution to mean only the Legislature directly elected by the people.
Less clear is whether the House and Senate votes on Wednesday will lead to a separate challenge of the lines for the 30 legislative districts.
There is no similar federal constitutional restriction on how those maps can be drawn. But Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said the commission violated other rules in how it drew those lines and he believes that decision, too, should be challenged in court.
The discussion about the legal issues, though, comes against a highly partisan backdrop. Republicans have charged that Colleen Mathis, who chairs the panel, was biased in favor of Democratic interests despite her official status as a political independent. And she was the deciding vote on the final lines.
GOP opposition was so heated that Gov. Jan Brewer fired Mathis on charges of not following the law, a decision ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate. But the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the firing illegal and the commission went on to adopt the maps.
“I represent a whole host of people who feel this process was hijacked from the start,” said Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa.
Farnsworth acknowledged that lawmakers did not challenge the question of who draws congressional lines a decade ago. At that time, it was the Democrats who were unhappy with the districts and who filed their own lawsuits unsuccessfully challenging the commission’s actions.
“Ten years ago, I wasn’t in leadership, I wasn’t a part of this,” he said.
“All I can do is tell you that I’m here, right now, (and) this is an issue,” Farnsworth said. “Whether I did 10 years ago or not is not relevant to what I’m doing right now.”
Tobin said he does not intend to try to affect the upcoming election, noting that the deadline for candidates to file nominating papers is the end of the month. But he figures if the court sides with the Legislature, it would free up lawmakers to at least draw congressional lines for the 2014 race.
That also is the case for a Republican-backed lawsuit already filed in state court challenging the procedures used to draw congressional lines.
But a separate lawsuit filed in federal court contesting the legislative lines seeks to have a three-judge panel draw a temporary map for use in this year’s election while the legality of the commission-drawn map is litigated.
Both of the existing lawsuits charge the redistricting commission did not follow constitutionally mandated procedures, making the maps illegal for use.
Antenori said he sees nothing wrong with having legislators draw boundaries for not only congressional districts but also their own districts, even if that means the majority craft lines designed to keep the GOP in control. “To the victors belong the spoils,” he said.