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Updated Apr 29, 2014 - 3:25 pm

Judges uphold Arizona legislative district maps

PHOENIX -- A panel of federal judges on Tuesday refused to throw out Arizona's new state legislative district maps, finding that the state's redistricting commission did not violate the Constitution's equal-protection clause when they put more voters in some districts.

The three judges said the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission did not violate the one-person, one-vote principle when it overloaded some districts, accepting the commission's argument that it was balancing state law and the need to get U.S. Justice Department approval required under the voting Rights Act.

The decision came more than a year after the judges held a weeklong trial where lawyers for 11 Republican voters who sued the commission argued the commission illegally injected partisan politics into the process. They alleged the commission illegally shifted Republican voters from some districts to make them more likely to elect Democrats to the state Legislature on the premise of complying with the federal Voting Rights Act.

The commission argued that it followed state rules for creating compact districts, keeping ``communities of interest'' together, and competitiveness in making its decisions. But it also had to deal with the getting the U.S. Department of Justice to sign off on the commission's maps, so it had to create districts where minorities had a chance to elect representatives of their choosing.

The three jurists- District Judges Roslyn Silver and Neil Wake and Circuit Judge Richard Clifton- found that the primary factor in the overpopulated districts was the effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act and get pre-clearance. But they noted that that some decisions were based on political factors.

``... We find that some of the commissioners were motivated in part in some of the linedrawing decisions by a desire to improve Democratic prospects in the affected districts,'' they said in their unsigned opinion. ``Nonetheless, the Fourteenth Amendment gives states some degree of leeway in drawing their own legislative districts and, because compliance with federal voting rights law was the predominant reason for the deviations, we conclude that no federal constitutional violation occurred.''

The judges noted that they did not decide whether the commission violated any state laws, leaving open the possibility of a new challenge in state court.

The Republicans' lawyers argued that the commission's reliance on the Voting Rights Act was a cover for drawing partisan districts.

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 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.

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.

Tuesday's win is the second of the year for the commission.

In February, another federal panel dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature that to throw out the state's U.S. congressional district maps.

That panel rejected lawmakers' arguments that the U.S. Constitution gives only the Legislature the authority to draw maps for the federal districts. The case is now on direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Tuesday's ruling also may be headed to the nation's high court.

Attorney David Cantelme, who represented the 11 Republican voters, including the wife of Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, said he would take at least a week before deciding whether to appeal Tuesday's decision.

However, he noted that two of the three judges found the commission was motivated at least in part by partisanship.

``It's important to note the state constitution says you're not supposed to consider it at all,'' he said.

A third case in state court, challenging the congressional district maps, is awaiting action.

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