The Supreme Court appeared divided Monday on an Arizona redistricting case that could have implications for congressional elections beyond the Southwestern state's borders.
The court heard oral arguments in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which questions whether independent commissions — rather than state legislatures — have the power to draw the lines of congressional districts.
If the court rules in the state Legislature's favor, Arizona's current congressional map would be tossed and the legislative body would redraw district lines. And that decision could spill over into California, which has a similar independent redistricting commission — created through a ballot referendum — that drew the current lines there.
Legislatures still control the redistricting process in a vast majority of states. While there are redistricting commissions in a handful of states, California and Arizona are the only two with commissions independent of the state legislatures and, therefore, are the only states expected to be directly affected by the court’s ruling.
The case focuses on a 2000 ballot initiative passed in Arizona that amended the state constitution to remove the power of redistricting from the state Legislature in favor of an independent commission.
The five-member commission is made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent member who serves as chairman. The Legislature, governor and general public are unable to make changes to the maps — only a successful judicial challenge can alter the lines the commission draws.
Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who represented the Arizona Legislature in the case, argued the independent commission violated the Elections Clause of the Constitution. That clause states, "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof."
The definition of "legislature" was up for debate Monday. Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general, argued for the Arizona commission that the word's meaning extends beyond a body of elected officials. Clement argued the definition of "legislature" clearly refers to the body of elected lawmakers in the state capital and that the Arizona Legislature being kept completely out of the redistricting process is "plainly repugnant to the Constitution."
The four conservative justices, as well as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, seemed to agree with that definition — a sign the court could strike down Arizona's map.
"It seems to me that history works very much against you," Kennedy told Waxman.
If the court forces a redraw of congressional lines, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature could potentially make the districts more difficult for Democrats, who currently hold four of the state's nine House seats, after losing one in 2014 .
"We’re going to have a very exciting cycle if the Supreme Court returns to the legislature the right to draw the map," one Arizona GOP operative said.
Currently, three of the Grand Canyon State's nine districts are competitive. Two are held by Democrats, Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick in the 1st District and Kyrsten Sinema in the 9th District.
While a GOP redraw could mean an extra House seat or two, it could also result in a more challenging 2016 re-election for Republican Sen. John McCain.
Democrats and Republicans alike speculated if Sinema's district becomes too challenging for any Democrat to hold, she may instead challenge McCain . Sinema was one of a handful of Democrats to vote for someone other than California Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker at the start of the current Congress.
If Democrats lose two seats in Arizona, it would further complicate the party's quest for the House majority in 2016 and beyond. Currently, Democrats must net 30 seats to take control, which is already a tough task given the limited number of competitive districts across the country.
While Arizona would become more challenging terrain for Democrats, California could see the opposite effect.
For years, Democrats in the state Legislature designed the congressional map with the goal of keeping incumbents in office. The change to an independent commission meant the homes and political safety of members of Congress could no longer be taken into account.
While Republicans have actually lost five seats since the new commission-drawn lines were first used in 2012 , some Republicans fear a redraw of district lines by the Democratic-controlled California Legislature could shrink that number even more.
"I think there’s a concern that you would then get a gerrymander. There’s no question," said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican operative. "Someone like [Rep. David] Valadao I think there’s a real concern about, and then losing the potential to compete for some of these swing seats out here."
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed for nonpartisan redistricting after being elected as a Republican in 2003. He filed a brief on behalf of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, as the Arizona Republic reported , arguing that siding for the Legislature could undo the work in California to eliminate abuses of a system that protected "incumbent politicians or a particular political party."
Also at issue in the case was whether the Arizona Legislature had the standing to sue. But even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose questioning suggested she saw no issue with the independent commission, believed the Legislature had the right to file suit.
"It seems the Legislature, if anyone, has standing, and they are, as an institution, affected," Ginsburg said during arguments.
The court must rule on the case by June.
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