PHOENIX -- Arizona's redistricting commission generally must follow the state's open meeting law but prosecutors cannot resume an investigation into whether the commission violated the sunshine-in-government law before it hired mapping consultants, an appellate court ruled Tuesday.
A Court of Appeals panel's unanimous ruling is the latest chapter in a series of ongoing legal fights over the Independent Redistricting Commission's contentious work of drawing new congressional and legislative districts. Where district lines are drawn is politically important because it influences which party and its candidates can win in districts.
In trying to fend off a civil investigation on whether it complied with the open meeting law, the commission said it is bound only to follow transparency requirements in the voter-approved constitutional amendment that created it, not the open meeting law.
The ruling said the constitutional provisions are supreme but said the commission also must follow open meeting law requirements that don't conflict.
The open law meeting generally requires that bodies do their work in the open and provide advance notice of meetings. It also voids actions taken in violation of the law.
``It's hard to see'' how compliance with the meeting law ``restricts or unduly burdens either the independence of the IRC or the performance of its mandate, especially given that the Constitution also requires the IRC to hold open meetings,'' Judge Donn Kessler wrote for the panel.
The panel also rejected the commission's argument that its internal communications concerning the hiring of mapping consultants are legally shielded from examination. Communications on actual drawing of maps are cloaked by a legal doctrine called ``legislative privilege,'' but not communications dealing with administrative matters like hiring consultants, the ruling said.
However, the judges upheld a trial judge's ruling that there was no reasonable cause to justify conducting an investigation. That issue was settled by the trial judge and prosecutors can't try again to extract information from the commission on whether it complied with the open meeting law, the ruling said.
``The bottom line (is) we won. The trial court's judgment was affirmed, and that's what matters,'' commission lawyer Mary O'Grady said.
O'Grady said it's also significant that the panel found that legislative privilege applies to the commission's mapping work.
The ruling that the commission is subject to the meeting law won't change much because the commission already tries to adhere to both the law and the constitutional requirements, she said.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office welcomed the ruling that the commission is subject to the open meeting law.
Arizona voters, the office said in a statement, ``would otherwise have been shocked to learn that a fourth branch of government had been created to affect political representation with no accountability.''
The state Attorney General's Office began investigating the five-member commission because of questions about whether chairwoman Colleen Mathis, an independent from Tucson, tried to prearrange the hiring of Democratic-leaning mapping consultants in one-on-one phone calls with other commissioners before the commission approved the hiring during a June 2011 public meeting.
The two Republican commission members objected to the choice, and tea party activists and Republican politicians later said it was one of several steps taken by the commission that indicated a partisan bias favoring Democrats.
Mathis has denied favoring either party and defended the selection of Strategic Telemetry as the best qualified choice among the applicants.
The County Attorney's Office took over the case after a judge ruled that the Attorney General's Office had a conflict of interest because one of its lawyers briefly advised the commission after it was formed.
The case is one of at least four court cases related to the Arizona redistricting commission. The other three are Republican-backed lawsuits challenging the district maps that the commission approved last January. The maps were used for the first time in the Aug. 28 primary election and Nov. 6 general election.
The 2000 constitutional amendment approved by voters took redistricting out of the hands of the governor and the Legislature.