Arizona left with no clear path in redistricting map flap

Arizona lawmakers scrambled to figure out what comes next for the state’s congressional and legislative maps on Wednesday, the day after the state’s Republican-controlled Senate voted to oust the head of the bipartisan redistricting commission.

Republicans are pushing a plan to force the commission to start over. Democrats are crying foul and asking the courts to step in. And nobody could predict with any certainty what lies ahead. The unprecedented move to boot the chairwoman left Arizonans without a clear path forward to put a new map in place in time for the 2012 elections.

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The longstanding clash between Democrats and Republicans over a map the GOP says unfairly benefits Democrats reached a new threshold on Friday, when Gov. Jan Brewer (R) demanded the commission members answer to a litany of allegations that they violated their constitutional duties while drawing the map. 

Unsatisfied with their response, Brewer’s administration on Tuesday called the state Senate into special session to seek the two-thirds majority needed to approve her decision to remove Colleen Mathis, the registered independent who chaired the commission.

“Today’s action isn’t the easy thing, certainly. But I’m convinced it’s the right thing. I will not sit idly by while Arizona’s congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in a fashion that is anything but constitutional and proper,” Brewer said in a statement.

The Senate approved that decision Tuesday night on a 21-6 party-line vote while Brewer was in New York to promote her new book. Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, acting in Brewer’s absence, officially called the special session.

The commission’s attorneys tried Tuesday to secure a restraining order ahead of the state Senate vote, but ran out of time before the vote was completed. After the vote, Mathis’s attorney, Paul Charlton, filed pleadings before the Arizona Supreme Court, arguing Mathis was removed without due process and that Brewer exceeded her authority by attempting to remove her.

“Now it’s clear any independent member who does not vote in lockstep with the Republicans will be removed,” Charlton said. “That means we will no longer have an independent redistricting commission. We will have a Republican commission.”

The Arizona Democratic Party said it would consider filing a friend-of-the-court brief to support the commission’s position. Democrats are also initiating the recall process against four state senators who voted to remove Mathis, accusing them of masquerading as centrists but then caving to the will of Arizona’s Republican governor.

“This was an illegal removal, and the senators who voted for it will have to answer for this,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. “Right now, we are focused on the unfolding legal challenges to this Republican abuse of power.”

The chaos surrounding the future of Arizona’s congressional map stemmed in large part from the fact that the Grand Canyon State is entering uncharted waters. The state transitioned to the bipartisan commission model for redrawing the maps in 2000, following a voter-approved amendment to the Arizona Constitution intended to separate politics from the redistricting process.

With the commission’s chairwoman out of the picture — pending any court intervention — neither party was sure what would come next. The panel could conduct business with just four of the five commissioners left, but the map would likely come to a stalemate, because the remaining four are composed of two Democrats and two Republicans.

If a new chairman is selected, the process could drag out for months. Under Arizona law, an appellate court panel would have 30 days to come up with three new independent candidates to replace Mathis, and the remaining four commissioners could choose one of the three. If that deadlocks, the appellate panel would make the decision, said a source in Phoenix with knowledge of the commission rules. 

It was also unclear whether a newly constituted commission could pick up where the old one left off or whether the draft map would have to be completely discarded and the process restarted.

The increasingly frantic twists in Arizona’s redistricting saga came as Republicans had been racing against the clock to thwart the map before the state’s independent redistricting commission sets the map in stone. That could have happened as soon as Thursday, when the map’s public comment period expires.

While the independent commission has put forth maps for both legislative and congressional districts, the congressional map has drawn particular scrutiny in light of opposition from GOP members of the House, who argue their districts have been unfairly redrawn.

The draft map the commission released in October shored up some Democratic seats and made some Republican seats more competitive. It also created a new toss-up district that Democrats have a chance of winning.

Arizona is gaining one seat in the House due to population growth over the past decade. The creation of that new district led to a redrawing of the lines in the Phoenix area that pitted two Republican incumbents, Reps. Ben Quayle and David Schweikert, in a likely primary showdown.

Democrats said their defense of the commission was based on respect for Arizona’s choice to let an independent panel draw the maps, not an acknowledgement that the new map leans Democratic.

“I’m not thrilled with the maps the commission has put out,” said state Rep. Daniel Patterson (D). “I do respect the commission’s constitutional duty to be independent and free of political interference, and this is a power grab.”