Californians may not realize it, but one of their best political ideas is under attack. In 2008, voters approved an initiative that created an independent redistricting commission; then in 2010, they expanded its reach to include the state’s congressional districts. The commission, which designed its first maps in 2011, has quickly become a model for the country. Structurally, it shields its members from political pressure. Aesthetically, its districts are compact and respect community boundaries. And electorally, they are competitive and politically balanced compared to the ones they replaced. If Arizona’s commission falls, California’s cannot stand. Both were created by a voter initiative — not by the Legislature. Neither gets legislative approval for their maps. The reason this reform is in jeopardy? Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission — set to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2.
Since 2000, Arizona has had a very similar commission to California’s. Unhappy with how it drew the state’s nine congressional districts in 2012, Arizona Republicans filed a federal suit. They cited the Elections Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” The commission, obviously enough, is not “the legislature.” So, the plaintiffs say, it is unconstitutional for it to play a role in regulating the “manner” of elections for Congress.
If Arizona’s commission falls, California’s cannot stand. Both were created by voter initiative — not by the Legislature. Neither requires legislative approval for its maps. If anything, California is on even thinner legal ice. Arizona lawmakers actually select four of the five commissioners from a vetted list; California’s are limited to striking 24 from the final applicant pool of 60.
Fortunately, the fate of Arizona’s commission is hardly settled. As the commission explains in its legal brief, for almost a century the Supreme Court has interpreted “the legislature” to refer to a state’s lawmaking process in its entirety. If this process includes voter initiatives (as it does in about half of U.S. states), then there is nothing improper about voters deciding to transfer district-drawing authority to a commission. Laws enacted by initiative, after all, are just as valid as those passed by the Legislature.