In all the hoopla about the gay marriage decision last week there is another decision that’s been mostly overlooked, but that is great news for progressives. The case is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, and (you guessed it), it’s another 5:4 decision. This one was authored by Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Basically, the case was a challenge to the Constitutionality of a redistricting commission set up in Arizona, to try to deal with the extreme partisanship in drawing the lines for federal congressional districts that results in gerrymandering, often of the ridiculous variety. If you want to know hos gerrymandering can completely distort the political process — as it has in Texas, where every single congressional district is Republican, and in Massachusetts, where every single congressional district is Democratic — the New York Times actually has published a very good explanation of it.
In any case, Arizona passed an amendment to the state constitution that transferred the redistricting power from the state legislature to an independent commission. The legislature objected to being cut out of the process — even though it was “the people,” their ostensible employer, who cut them out — and filed a federal lawsuit. The Arizona legislature alleged that tasking the commission with redistricting violates the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause, which provides that the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections . . . shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”
If the Supreme Court held that the legislature essentially encompasses the people as well. If it had not, there are any number of initiatiaves and referenda which might have been repealed. In any case, this is great news for all those of us who would like to see the procedural protections around elections strengthened.
The conserviative justices were typically apoplectic, with Chief Justice Roberts joining Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas, in taking the narrow view that the word “Legislature” referred only to the official body of elected representatives. I can see their point. Maybe that is the better reading of the Constitution, but this was also a needed reform to the process of redrawing congressional districts.
It leaves me with mixed feelings. There is an old legal maxim that hard cases make bad law. It’s the right outcome, but maybe not the right precedent.
Amy Howe at the Scotusblog has a nice “plain English” summary of the decision.