By Ben Kamisar
The Supreme Court on Monday approved the use of an independent commission to draw district lines in Arizona, steering clear of a ruling that could have created upheaval for 100 congressional races across the country.
Justice Anthony Kennedy served as the swing vote in the 5-4 decision, siding with the liberal justices in allowing Arizona and other states to use independent redistricting commissions in order to combat partisan gerrymandering.
Arizona lawmakers sued and argued that the new framework violates the Constitution, which leaves the “time, place and manner of holding elections” specifically to the legislature. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinion shot that down in an opinion that frames the initiative as a valid form of "direct democracy."
"The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process in which the people’s legislative power is coextensive with the state legislature’s authority, but the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power," she wrote.
"Banning lawmaking by initiative to direct a State’s method of apportioning congressional districts would do more than stymie attempts to curb partisan gerrymandering, by which the majority in the legislature draws district lines to their party’s advantage. It would also cast doubt on numerous other election laws adopted by the initiative method of legislating."
Democrats had accused the Legislature of seeking to overturn the commission solely for partisan reasons, while the Republican-controlled Legislature had argued that it should have the sole power to draw congressional boundaries.
While the decision specifically dealt with Arizona, a ruling striking down the commission could have thrown dozens of congressional districts into doubt ahead of the 2016 elections. California also established its own redistricting commission through a ballot initiative, as have a handful of other states.
By siding against the Arizona Legislature, the court keeps those districts intact.
That's good news for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who would have likely been shut out of a congressional seat if the Arizona Legislature had been given the chance to place large blocs of Republican voters into her district.
The ruling also potentially sets up Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) for another tough election race. She defeated incumbent Rep. Ron BarberRon BarberTen House seats Dems hope Trump will tilt House conducts moment of silence for Tucson shooting anniversary Dem files Ethics complaint on Benghazi panel MORE (D), Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s former aide who replaced her in the seat after she was shot, by less than 200 votes. If the Legislature had won, it could have given her an easier road to reelection by adding Republican voters to her district.
Sinema praised the decision as "a victory for all Arizonans" in a statement to The Hill.
"Our constituents want and deserve competitive elections and responsive representatives," she said. "I'm pleased that the Court has heard and respected the voice of all Arizonans."
McSally said she respects the decision and looks "forward to continuing to represent the people of Arizona's 2nd District" in a statement.
Monday’s decision, grouped with rulings on lethal injection and environmental regulations, and following a landmark ruling on same-sex marriage, closes out a contentious court term that brought strongly worded dissents from justices in the minority.
Justice Clarence Thomas used his opinion to chide the Court for thinking it is the “great defender of direct democracy in the states” after it ruled to overturn gay marriage bans enacted through the legislative process in a number of states.
“These sentiments are difficult to accept. The conduct of the Court in so many other cases reveals a different attitude toward the States in general and ballot initiatives in particular,” he said, just before specifically citing the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges. It was the first time a Supreme Court opinion had cited the landmark case legalizing same-sex marriage.
“Just last week, in the antithesis of deference to state lawmaking through direct democracy, the Court cast aside state laws across the country—many of which were enacted through ballot initiative—that reflected the traditional definition of marriage.”
J. Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center which authored a friend of the court brief supporting the commission, praised the court in a statement.
“Today’s decision is a victory for representative democracy and a sharp rebuke to the Arizona legislators who sued to overturn the popular will of the state’s citizens in order to regain their ability to handpick their constituents and safeguard their seats through blatant political gerrymanders,” he said.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of voters over their elected officials, but disappointed to see four Justices willing to deny voters a fair chance to choose their own representatives.”
This story was updated at 12:58 p.m.