Ticking clock: California redistricting in SCOTUS’ hands

Congressional districts in the Inland Empire, approved by California's redistricting commission in 2011. (Map: Ballotpedia)

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court, with arguments set to be heard on March 2, could reduce the role of the State Redistricting Commission, invalidate the 2011 Congressional lines, and hand to the legislature the immediate responsibility of redrawing 53 valuable seats.

The case, born out of the Arizona Legislature’s frustration with their own commission, will decide if the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that the state legislators draw congressional districts can be given to an independent commission through a ballot measure. If the commission is ruled unconstitutional, Arizona and each state with a similar commission, such as California, would have to perform a mid-decade redraw of their Congressional Districts, while legislative and other offices would not be impacted.

Mid-decade redistrictings are rare and generally very contentious.

Ten years ago, the nation watched a drama in which Democratic legislators in Texas were fleeing the state in the dead of night to Oklahoma and New Mexico in order to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to pass a new redistricting plan. This was so important to Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay that he began enlisting the FAA in tracking flights carrying the recalcitrant legislators. When Republicans were ultimately successful, the plan flipped the partisanship of the Congressional delegation Republican for the first time since Reconstruction and resulted in a number of lawsuits and investigations.

What the Redistricting Commission had done in 2012 was a radical redraw at the time.

While we are unlikely to see a Texas-sized political circus come to Sacramento, there are enough seats in play and changes to the process that could make it interesting.

It’s likely that the primary goal of a legislatively drawn redistricting plan would be stability. In the 2001 redistricting, the last time the Legislature had control, several observers had seen a ripe opportunity for the Democratic leadership and Governor to shore up some considerable gains in Democratic registration and changing demographics, particularly the growth of Latinos in several seats held by non-Latino lawmakers, but this didn’t materialize. The final plan preserved the status-quo.

But what the Redistricting Commission had done in 2012 was a radical redraw at the time. They increased the number of Majority-Minority districts, allowed for Democratic gains and were responsible for as many as a dozen retirements and losses. However, these lines are now, two elections later, the new normal. Maintaining the basic construction of these districts could be the primary goal of a statewide redraw.

The next set of moves would be about current and future congressional openings, and which legislators may have their eyes on a move up the ladder.

To spice up the redistricting even further, add to the mix the the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision dismantling Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act

First up would be the recently announced vacancy by Janice Hahn in a district drawn to be one of three African American seats in Los Angeles. Others could come from the jostling for the vacant US Senate seat. Particularly intriguing would be Los Angeles based vacancies with multiple potential suitors.

To spice up the redistricting even further, add to the mix the the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision dismantling Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act. In 2011 the Federal Department of Justice had the authority to strike down the entire plan if commissioners retrogressed the ethnic voting potential within any district in a Section 5 county. That leverage is now gone.

Section 5 was a threat not only to the specific lines drawn by the commission, but to the whole commission process itself, as any DOJ invalidation of the commission work would likely happen so late in the process that the courts would have to intervene and draw the final lines. To ensure DOJ pre-clearance, commissioners went so far as to do the effected Central Valley and Central Coast districts first, then draw the rest of the state after those centerpieces pieces were set.

This process of redrawing – blocking off districts in the middle of the state, then drawing the remainder of the seats — removed several options and had implications as far away as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Take away these set pieces and the Legislature could get creative in the drawing of new congressional seats, particularly in those inside and bordering the Central Valley.

A mid-decade redraw could also reignite calls by community groups and ethnic organizations that might still be smarting from a particular loss in the 2011 redraw. While African Americans held just about as much as they could through the process, Latinos, and Asian groups did not achieve quite as much in the final plans as they could. In particular, Asian groups could have benefitted by a more aggressive redraw of districts in the San Gabriel Valley and the area overlapping South Alameda County and North-Eastern Santa Clara County.

Legislators and members of Congress would be wise to pay attention to the March 2nd Supreme Court oral arguments, and, depending on the tone of discussion, prepare for some fireworks before the filing deadline for the 2016 elections.

While the court could invalidate the current commission and chart a path to a constitutionally allowed redistricting commission process, maybe one that gives a direct role to the Legislature, a replacement ballot measure could not be on the ballot until 2016. And even if the Legislature could give away a part of their role in redistricting, why would they when it’s so much fun?

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a political strategist and analyst of campaign data,  is the owner of Redistricting Partners.


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