Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

10-3 Lawyers Full Employment Act

100311 redistrict suits

SANTA FE – It wasn't intended to be a jobs creator but the recent special session stalemate over redistricting plans has effectively produced the Lawyers' Full Employment Act.
Without even waiting for Gov. Susana Martinez to exercise her threatened vetoes, three lawsuits were filed within two days of the special session's adjournment. So the courts, once again, will have to do the dirty work, aided by several million dollars' worth of lawyers.
Redistricting lawsuits have been filed in Bernalillo, Lea and Santa Fe counties. More may be on the way. It is likely the state Supreme Court will end up consolidating all suits into one and assigning a mutually agreeable district judge to hear the case and draw new maps.
Courts don't like to get involved in political battles so they will exercise as limited a role as possible. The prime consideration of the court will be the one person-one vote requirement. Districts must be as within five percent of the ideal. All the lawsuits are certain to use that standard as their reason for establishing their standing in court.
Certainly many districts are out of whack. Some have more than twice the population of others. The Lea County lawsuit contends that the legislative plans are biased in favor of urban districts at the expense of rural districts. Two Albuquerque lawmakers recently have issued statements charging just the opposite.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat, and Rep. James White, a Republican, both from Albuquerque, cite statistics to prove their point. The Lea County arguments to the contrary are not yet available. It doesn't seem both can be correct.
If the size of districts is within five percent of the norm, they meet the rule. Ortiz y Pino's argument is that 10 years ago rural districts were allowed to be on the low side of the norm in order for them to lose as few districts as possible.
That means that the Albuquerque area's fast growing districts began on the high side of the norm and in 10 years became twice as large as some rural districts. A judge is going to have to decide whether fast growing districts should start out above or below the ideal size.
The judge also will look at the shape of districts, which should be as compact as possible. Gerrymandering, in order to include desired precincts, is frowned upon.
Laws also prohibit diluting minority voting strength. That is an important consideration in New Mexico and is likely to appear in some suits. Some Indian tribes complicate that matter, however, by wanting to have representation in as many districts as possible.
The most controversial factor in this decade's redistricting has been political fairness. Republicans complain that Democrats used their majorities in both houses to create too many districts that either are safe Democratic or safe Republican.
Since most of the contests below the gubernatorial line on the ballot are traditionally won by Democrats, Republicans contend that there aren't enough marginal districts to give them a chance at winning a majority of legislative seats.
Normally legislators want a district they easily can win. But it can get too easy. By packing as many Republicans as possible into a district, the chance of having toss-up districts decreases. But there is no law against politically motivated redistricting. If there were, Texas Democratic senators wouldn't have spent the summer of 2003 in New Mexico attempting to prevent losing many congressional seats.
There wasn't much need for the recent million dollar special session. Legislators and the governor likely knew it would end up in court. Democrats may have wanted to pass something advantageous hoping the court would use it as a starting point.
Ten years ago, the Judge Frank Allen gave mixed signals when he used legislative redistricting bills as a template but refused to do so with congressional redistricting.
We must find a better method of redistricting.


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