Just last November, California voters experienced a bracing novelty — a handful of competitive state assembly elections — after decades of blatant gerrymandering in which the legislature drew lines that lopsidedly favored the party in power or willfully protected incumbents on both sides of the aisle. One big reason for the change: a bipartisan citizens redistricting commission created by a statewide ballot initiative to govern state electoral boundaries and later expanded to cover congressional seats. No longer are districts here tailored to protect friends and family — as they infamously were 35 years ago when the late Rep. Philip Burton, a Democratic power broker, engineered a congressional district for his brother, John, that included parts of four counties and was connected in some places only by waterways and rail yards.
But California’s modest gains — along with various electoral reforms in more than a dozen other states — would be at risk if the Supreme Court rules in favor of a little-publicized suit brought by Arizona’s state legislature, which is seeking to invalidate a similar redistricting commission that drew the most recent congressional boundary lines in that state, on the grounds that it violates the elections clause of the Constitution, which grants state legislatures the power to set the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections. The court is set to hear oral arguments in the case on Monday.
“For entrenched political interests around the country, it would be the biggest New Year’s Eve of all,” if the court backed the legislature, said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which has been following the case closely and filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Arizona commission.
Hyperpartisan redistricting has been widely condemned by political experts of both parties as one of the principal contributing factors to the current dysfunction of Congress. The issue has been the source of such bitter wrangling that in 2003, a group of Democratic Texas state senators fled to New Mexico for more than a month in an attempt to block a vote on a districting plan that favored Republicans. So the Arizona case has the potential to be explosive.