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Trial begins in GOP redistricting map challenge

PHOENIX -- A three-judge panel of federal judges began hearing testimony Monday in a civil suit brought by Republican voters who claim the state's new legislative maps were drawn up to illegally dilute their voting power and give Democrats a better chance of winning seats in the Legislature.

Lawyers for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission disagree, with the lead attorney telling the judges in his opening statement that if it was the intent of the majority on the panel to draw maps for Arizona's 30 legislative districts to get more Democrats elected, they failed miserably. He said both sides agree that Republicans will control the House and Senate at least through this decade because of how the maps were drawn.

``You will have to decide ... that there was partisan intent,' lead lawyer Colin Campbell said. ``If there was, it was partisan suicide.''

The suit filed by 11 Republican voters, including the wife of Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, alleges the two Democrats and one independent on the commission froze out the two Republicans from any meaningful participation in drawing the new district lines required after the 2010 Census. They allege the independent and chairwoman, Coleen Mathis, hid her bias against Republicans when she applied for the appointed post, failing to note that she had contributed to several Democratic campaigns and that her husband served as campaign treasurer for a Democrat seeking a House seat in 2010.

They go on to say that Mathis quickly teamed up with the two Democrats, making partisan choices for a mapping consultant with a background of working on Democratic presidential, campaigns and refusing to allow Republicans to pick the lawyer they wanted.

The resulting maps created 10 so-called voting rights districts, 9 Hispanic-majority and one American Indian majority, and did so by moving some Republican voters out of the districts. That left some Republican districts with more registered voters and the Hispanic-majority districts with fewer than average, which effectively diluted their votes in violation of the one-man, one-vote principle in the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection clause. There was no overriding state interest in shifting the voters the way the panel did, according to attorney David Cantelme.

``We will make an argument, and I think it's a persuasive argument, that this pattern alone shows discriminatory intent,' Cantelme told the judges Monday.

The Republicans want the maps thrown out and new ones drawn.

The trial started just hours after Cantelme filed a request for permission to call a new witness, saying the plaintiffs had just learned that the executive director of the state Democratic Party shared maps with the commission's mapping consultant that took incumbency into consideration. Commission lawyers called the effort a baseless fishing expedition without merit. The judges did not immediately rule on the request Monday.

The case is one of three lawsuits brought against the commission after it adopted the statewide legislative and Congressional maps in January 2012.

Gov. Jan Brewer and other Republicans immediately denounced the maps as being drawn to favor Democrats. Brewer removed Mathis as chairwoman in November 2011, but the state Supreme Court restored her to the post two weeks later, saying Brewer had no grounds to remove her.

Voters created the commission in 2000 to take the politically charged once-a-decade job of drawing new maps out of the hands of the Legislature.

The three judge panel, made of District Judges Rosyln Silver and Neil Wake and Circuit Judge Richard Clifton, is expected to hear testimony through Friday and rule later.

Witnesses will include commission members, mapping experts, the commission's Voting Rights Act expert and the executive director of the state Democratic Party, Dennis Quinlan.

Two other cases have been filed, including one that challenges the commission's right to draw district maps and another challenging the completed Congressional map.

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