PHOENIX -- A federal court order means a lawsuit challenging Arizona's new map of legislative districts can proceed to a trial that will likely determine whether partisan considerations can be a factor in redistricting. The potential outcome of the case could affect the 2014 election.
A three-judge panel on Friday denied a motion by Arizona's redistricting commission to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of 11 Republican voters, including the wife of incoming state Senate President Andy Biggs.
At issue in the case is whether population variances between districts drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission are too large and thus dilute votes under federal safeguards for equal protection under the law.
Republicans contend the commission included overly large population variances as it tried to give redistricting advantages to Democrats.
The commission denied that claim, saying it was trying to balance competing constitutional criteria that include creating competitive districts.
Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can create districts with unequal populations for rational policy reasons but not for arbitrary or discriminatory ones. It's unclear though how and whether partisanship is legally allowed as a basis for creating districts with unequal populations, she said.
That means the case must go to trial for fact-finding and a legal determination of what's permissible, she said.
Two other redistricting cases challenging the map of new congressional districts are pending in federal and state courts.
Together, the three cases continue a legal and political battle that a year ago saw Republican Gov. Jan Brewer try unsuccessfully to oust independent Colleen Mathis as chairwoman of the five-member, appointed commission.
The once-a-decade, post-Census redistricting process is important politically because the makeup of districts can have a big influence on whether a party and candidate have realistic prospects to win.
In 2000, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and governor.
None of the pending lawsuits affected this year's elections. If any are ultimately successful, resulting changes to maps would be used in future elections, but Silver said a trial on the challenge to the legislative map must be held by March to avoid disrupting the 2014 elections.
The other two redistricting court cases are also in preliminary stages.
In October, a state judge dismissed a Republican-backed lawsuit challenging the new map of congressional districts on grounds that the commission violated important procedural safeguards. The ruling by Judge Mark Brain of Maricopa Court Superior Court threw out some parts of that case as legally unfounded but allowed the recent filing of a shorter, clearer version.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by behalf of the Republican-led Legislature challenges the commission's authority to draw congressional districts. The commission has asked the federal judge considering that case to dismiss it.