Newly Drawn Congressional Districts Under Fire

Back to back, the current congressional districts, left, and proposed ones, right. | Image via California Citizens Redistricting Commission
Back to back, the current congressional districts, left, and proposed ones, right. | Image via California Citizens Redistricting Commission

Last week former Congressman George Radanovich (R) and four others asked the California Supreme Court to declare California's newly drawn congressional districts unconstitutional. The state's 53 congressional districts now hang in the balance. The suit asks the state's highest court to appoint a special master to draw new congressional boundaries.

This year, for the first time in the state's history, a 14-member commission drew California's state and federal legislative districts. In the past incumbent legislators, with an obvious stake in the size and shape of districts, drew legislative district lines. Two successful ballot measures, passed in 2008 and 2010, took that power away from legislators.

Opponents of the new district lines had begun a drive to qualify a ballot measure, which would have asked voters to weigh in on the maps. However, that referendum effort has slowed to a near halt. (There is a separate effort to qualify a ballot measure to overturn the state's newly drawn Senate districts.) For opponents of the congressional lines, the the next stop is the courthouse, not the ballot box.

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In the suit, opponents of the newly drawn lines allege, in part, that the commission drew unconstitutional lines in three Los Angeles Congressional districts. The argument is under the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) at least one, and perhaps two, of those districts should have been drawn to include a majority of African American voters, but instead were drawn to protect the three incumbent legislators. The result, according to the lawsuit, is that the lines impermissibly dilute the voting power of African Americans. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D) holds one of those districts. Bass states that none of the three districts have ever been "African American only Congressional Districts," and that the motivation of the lawsuit is to lessen the number of African-Americans in Congress.

Opponents of the newly drawn lines further contend that as a result of the illegally drawn districts, districts elsewhere in Los Angeles were not drawn to include at least one, and perhaps two, districts that included a majority of Latino voters. In addition, those filing the lawsuit claim that newly drawn lines improperly divide the Asian community in Orange County, thereby unconstitutionally diluting their voting power.

The question for the court will be whether those filing the suit can demonstrate a violation of the VRA or can merely show sour grapes. Under the lines drawn by the commission, Congressional Republicans could stand to lose a number of key seats.

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

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