Justices to review Arizona districting commission

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said it will consider a challenge by Arizona Republicans to the state's redistricting process for congressional districts.

The challenge by Republicans was previously rejected by a panel of federal judges.

Arizona voters created an independent redistricting commission in 2000 in an effort to take politics out of the process. But the GOP-led state Legislature complained in a lawsuit that the Constitution exclusively gives power to draw maps for congressional districts to elected state lawmakers.

A divided panel of federal judges dismissed the lawsuit in March, but justices said they will review the lower court ruling.

In a brief order, the justices said they would consider whether the commission is allowed either under the Constitution or federal law. The court also will consider whether Arizona lawmakers even have the right to bring their lawsuit.

California, which also uses an independent redistricting commission, could be affected by the high court's decision, the Republicans suggested in their legal brief.

The commission was given the power previously held by the Legislature to draw federal congressional maps and state legislative district maps. The Republican lawsuit the Supreme Court agreed to hear targets just the congressional district maps.

Lawyers for the state's redistricting commission said in a statement that the ability of voters to decide how districts are drawn and to enact reform efforts designed to remove politics from the process are at risk.

"If the Arizona Legislature prevails, only state legislatures would be permitted to draw congressional districts, effectively ending independent congressional redistricting that has been an important reform in Arizona and elsewhere," commission attorneys Mary O'Grady and Joseph Kanefield wrote.

The five-member commission became the source of political wrangling shortly after it began its work following the 2010 Census. Republicans believed the independent on the commission, Colleen Mathis, was aligned with the two Democrats on the panel, and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer ordered her removed in November 2011.

The Arizona Supreme Court restored her to the post two weeks later, saying Brewer had no grounds to remove her.

The commission then finished its work and finalized the new maps in January 2012. They were used in the November 2012 election.

On Thursday, Brewer said she hopes the high court agrees with the Legislature and ends the process, noting that the maps the commission adopted led to a 5-4 Democratic congressional majority after the 2012 elections.

"That is not right, because we all know that the voter registration reflects that Republicans are in the majority, not the minority," Brewer told The Associated Press.

There are more registered Republicans than Democrats, but independent voters outnumber both parties.

Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin issued a joint statement calling the court's decision good news that they hope would eventually return congressional redistricting to the lawmakers.

"The U.S. Constitution clearly gives the state Legislature the authority and responsibility to draw congressional district lines, and this case presents the question of whether that authority can be removed from the Legislature and given to an unelected commission," they said.

The high court is also being asked to take up a second case involving Arizona's redistricting process. That case, filed by 11 Republican voters, argued that the Constitution's equal protection clause was violated when the commission put more voters in some state legislative districts.

A panel of federal judges refused to throw out those maps in April. The commission argued that it was balancing state law and the need to get U.S. Justice Department approval required under the Voting Rights Act when it overloaded some districts. The Republicans' lawyers argued that the commission's reliance on the Voting Rights Act was a cover for drawing partisan districts.

The 2000 constitutional amendment creating the commission required it to draw equal-population districts and take into account goals that included communities of interest, compactness and competitiveness - whether individual districts could realistically be won by both major parties' candidates. The commission adopted maps in 2002 and again 10 years later.

Democrats sued over the 2002 map and eventually lost. Republican lawmakers filed their challenge after the 2012 map was released.

The three most competitive congressional districts were won by Democrats in 2012 and are being hotly contested again this year.

The court will hear argument during the winter.

The case is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 13-1314.

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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