BY RAVIKA RAMESHWAR — State safeguards to prevent partisan gerrymandering are facing a constitutional hurdle in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday, May 4, 2015, to determine if states have the right to limit or abolish state legislative authority to draw boundaries for congressional elections.
To combat gerrymandering, many states have passed ballot initiatives to limit state legislative discretion in drawing electoral boundaries. Other states have taken the power of redistricting completely out of the hands of the legislature and, instead, have entrusted a neutral commission with the task. However, the Supreme Court will decide if a state’s effort to curtail state legislative authority directly contradicts the Constitution, which expressly vests power in the state’s legislature to regulate the “times, places, and manner” of congressional elections under the Elections Clause. If the Court holds in favor of the Arizona State Legislature in Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, independent redistricting commissions in California, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, and Washington could be at risk. A 2010 Florida redistricting initiative might also be in jeopardy.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission case arises from a 2000 Arizona ballot initiative, where Arizona voters amended the state constitution and set up an independent redistricting commission. The politically neutral Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (“AIRC”)—comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans, and a fifth member chosen by the other four members—is tasked with drawing boundaries for congressional elections every ten years. The Arizona State Legislature argues that the AIRC unconstitutionally divests the legislature of its authority under the Elections Clause because redistricting falls within state legislative authority to regulate the “manner” of congressional elections.
The AIRC argues that the ballot initiative is constitutional because the Elections Clause was designed to empower the people’s will and not to “entrench state legislature’s privilege.” Additionally, the AIRC argues that the term “legislature” in the Elections Clause refers to a lawmaking body and not specifically a state legislature. Therefore, the AIRC maintains that the ballot initiative did not violate the expressed words of the Elections Clause because the voters constitute a lawmaking body. Finally, the AIRC claims that because the purpose of the Elections Clause is to vest power in the people, the ballot initiative did just that—it allowed the people, a lawmaking body, to exercise sovereign power to address partisan gerrymandering.
The oral arguments before the Court focused on the definition of the word “legislature.” While the Justices seemed skeptical of the AIRC’s definition of “legislature,” at least one Justice, Justice Kagan, expressed concern about the implications that a holding in favor of the Arizona State Legislature could have. Justice Kagan suggested that a ruling in favor of the Arizona State Legislature could overturn voter identification laws, vote-by-mail laws, voting machine laws, and a “zillion” other voting-related laws.
One of those “zillion” voting-related laws could be a 2010 Florida ballot initiative. Through the initiative, Florida voters created limitations, aimed to include minority votes and prevent gerrymandering, on the Florida State Legislature.
While the question remains open on how the Court will rule on this issue, a firm ruling in favor of the Arizona State Legislature could do much more than overturn a “zillion” laws; it could discredit the very nature of a democracy. Fifty years after the “Bloody Sunday” March in Selma, Alabama, a powerful precursor to the passing of the Voting Rights Act that prohibited denying individuals the right to vote based on racial discrimination, gerrymandering remains a political tool to disenfranchise minority voters. The Court has left political gerrymandering untouched by holding that the issue is nonjusticiable. Without the Court to rely upon, the people have no recourse to end political gerrymandering other than to democratically vote for reform. However, if the Court holds in favor of the Arizona State Legislature, it is essentially telling the people that their vote in the ballot initiative did not count and that their vote in a congressional election may never be heard.