High Court Upholds Voter Initiative Power to Establish Redistricting Commission

A possible threat to California’s voter-approved independent redistricting commission was averted today when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of a similar commission in Arizona.

On the last day of its current term, the court by a 5-4 vote rejected a lawsuit by the Arizona legislature, which argued that the U.S. Constitution requires that state legislatures must be in charge of congressional redistricting.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “lawmaking power in Arizona includes the initiative process” and that “the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.”

Ginsburg said, “We see no constitutional barrier to a state’s empowerment of its people by embracing that form of lawmaking.”

Arizona’s commission was established by a voter initiative in 2000 for the stated purpose of “ending the practice of gerrymandering,” which is defined as drawing election district lines to favor a particular party.

California’s commission was formed by a voter initiative in 2008 for the purpose of defining state legislative districts. Congressional redistricting was added to the commission’s responsibilities in a second voter initiative in 2010.

If the high court had struck down the Arizona commission, the ruling would have affected only the California commission’s authority to draw congressional districts and not its power to set state Senate and Assembly district boundaries.

But the ruling could also have undermined California’s voter-approved “top two” primary system and other election laws passed by initiatives in California and other states.

California was one of 13 states that joined in a friend-of-the-court brief saying that a ruling striking down the Arizona commission would “throw a cloud of uncertainty over initiative-adopted election laws going back to 1904.”

Kathay Feng, the California director of Common Cause, a citizens’ group that advocates open government processes, said in a statement, “Today, voters win.

“The Supreme Court has resoundingly upheld the right of We the People to take redistricting out of secret backrooms run by politicians and into the public light of citizen-driven commissions. Like Arizonans, Californians demanded fair and transparent redistricting that prioritizes the voice of the public over politics,” Feng said.

The constitutional provision at issue specifies that state legislatures should prescribe “the time, places and manner of holding elections” for U.S. senators and representatives. It also provides that Congress can alter state laws on the time and manner of elections.

In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Arizona voter initiative was “a deliberate constitutional evasion” that revised the word “legislature” to mean “the people.”

Ginsburg said in the majority ruling that the main purpose of the constitutional clause was to give Congress the power to override possible abusive election laws by state legislatures.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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