California Supreme Court Strikes a Blow to Republicans in 2012 Races

California Senate Chambers
California Senate Chambers | Photo: Aquafornia/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Think the battle over the state's legislative lines is so 2011? Think again.

As readers of my column know, California voters passed two ballot initiatives which took the power to draw legislative lines out of the hands of the legislators and put that power into the hands of a 14-member independent redistricting commission. The commission was comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four voters who are registered as Decline to State.

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Last year the commission completed its charge of drawing new lines based on 2010 census data for the board of equalization, state assembly, state senate and House of Representatives. The commission had the responsibility of drawing lines, which complied with a number of criteria, including demographic shifts, drawing districts of equal (or nearly equal) population and complying with the voting rights act.

The commission heard public testimony, created draft maps, and heard even more public testimony. The process was not perfect, nothing can be, but it was far more open and transparent than the process that takes place when legislators draw their own lines.

As soon as the commission approved the lines, those lines were challenged. Under the new State Senate lines Republicans are likely to lose a few seats, and so it comes as no surprise that it is Republicans challenging the newly drawn lines. Democrats are two seats short of obtaining a two-thirds majority in the state's upper house. This threshold is a magic number in California, where taxes and fees must be approved by a supermajority. While the Assembly would also have to approve such changes by a two-thirds majority, it will give Democrats more bargaining power if they can obtain the two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Those unhappy with the new State Senate lines (Republicans) are continuing to fight. A GOP-backed group called Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting (yes, that's right "FAIR") have filed more than 700,000 signatures for a referendum that would overturn the new Senate lines. If County officials certify the signatures, voters will weigh in on that measure in November at the earliest.

Last week the state's highest court ruled that even if the referendum to overturn Senate maps qualifies for the ballot, the newly drawn lines will still be used in the 2012 election. The ruling represents a very initial finding of the appropriateness of the Senate maps. This decision strikes me as the right one for a number of reasons. First, the voters gave the commission the power to draw the legislative lines. That is what the commission did. Barring newly drawn districts, which violate the voting rights act, we shouldn't now try to overturn those lines by again going back to the ballot box. Second, the decision gives some certainly to candidates for the state senate. Elections will soon be held in 20 of the state's 40 senate districts.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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