Court Knocks Down Colorado’s Pro-GOP Redistricting Plan

Posted December 1, 2003 at 3:27pm

Democrats were ecstatic today over a 5-2 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that threw out a new Congressional redistricting plan for the state that favored Republicans.

“Enough is enough,” said Rep. Mark Udall (Colo.), one of several Democrats who had sued to overturn the Congressional map approved by the Republican-led Legislature in May. “If the Republicans don’t get the election results they want, or if those election results are too close for comfort, they should gear up for the next election; they shouldn’t game the system for their own partisan political advantage. This kind of foolishness is what makes Americans lose faith in their political system.”

But the GOP had a simple retort: Not so fast.

“I think there’s a strong likelihood of an appeal,” said Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

In a decision with far-reaching potential, Colorado’s highest court on Monday ordered the boundaries of the state’s seven Congressional districts to revert to the contours that were used for the 2002 elections, a decision that makes two of the districts far more competitive than they were in the map that went into effect six months ago.

The plan used for the 2002 election was drawn by a state court after the Legislature — then split between Democrats and Republicans — deadlocked. In changing the district lines in the final days of the 2003 legislative session, Colorado Republicans — who had taken control of the state Senate and House — argued that they were simply fulfilling the once-a-decade duty of the Legislature to draw the Congressional map.

But the Court resoundingly rejected that argument, writing that legislators forfeited their chance to draw the Congressional lines when they could not agree on a plan in their regular session and two special sessions in 2002.

“The state constitution limits redistricting to once per Census, and nothing in state or federal law negates this limitation. Having failed to redistrict when it should have, the General Assembly has lost its chance to redistrict until after the 2010 federal Census,” the judges wrote.

While the court ruling affects the boundaries of most of the state’s House districts, the decision will be felt most profoundly in two districts: the 7th, in the Denver suburbs and exurbs, and 3rd, which covers the western half of the state.

“I think Colorado will now be a real battleground for both parties in 2004,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). She said the state’s House delegation has the potential to swing from 5-2 Republican to 4-3 Democratic.

The Legislature had transformed the 7th, a new district that freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) won by just 121 votes in 2002, from essentially a tossup district to one that increased George W. Bush’s percentage of the 2000 vote from 49.5 percent to 54.1 percent. Legislators had also taken a significant chunk of the 7th’s Hispanic population out of the district to favor Beauprez.

If the court’s ruling stands, a strong Democratic challenger could come forward to take on Beauprez, who nevertheless has a significant headstart in fundraising and organizing thanks to the Legislature’s earlier move.

In the swing 3rd district, where Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) is retiring in 2004, the Legislature added rural areas and removed Hispanic neighborhoods in Pueblo, one of the Democratic strongholds of the district.

The court ruling strengthens the likely Democratic nominee in 2004, state Rep. John Salazar (D). He is the brother, coincidentally, of state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D), who took the redistricting case to court.

Half a dozen strong Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination to replace McInnis. If the ruling helps any of them, it is probably Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino (R), who now sees his base fully restored in the 3rd.

“I think the ruling repositioned me today as a formidable candidate,” he said.

But the map is still not set in stone: Halaby said state Republican leaders could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or to a federal court in Denver, which is also hearing a challenge to the GOP redistricting plan but held off on any action until the state Supreme Court ruled.

The federal court is tentatively scheduled to have a status hearing on the case on Thursday, said DeGette, who is a plaintiff in the Democrats’ federal case.

Although Beauprez’s chances for re-election may have suffered a blow from the court decision, the freshman lawmaker — who maintained all along that he had nothing to do with the GOP re-redistricting push in the Legislature — professed not to be concerned.

“I have said from the beginning that I like my current district and that I will continue working hard on behalf of the people who elected me to Congress,” Beauprez said in a statement Monday.

Even though Democrats’ chances improved in the 7th, they have no obvious candidate yet.

“I think we’re going to know something in the next couple of weeks,” said Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

John Works, a banker and political neophyte, has already begun preparing for a campaign against Beauprez, though he has yet to make a formal announcement. He sounded emboldened by the court decision.

“The voters are already telling me that we can do better than Bob’s back-door politics,” Works said in a statement.

But the restored lines could also attract better-known Democrats into the field. Among the possibilities: former state Sen. Mike Feeley, the Democratic nominee in 2002; Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who lost the 2002 nomination fight to Feeley; and former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, who was expected to run last year but didn’t.

State Senate Minority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald (D) has also been mentioned, though she does not live in the district. But she could move there, which is what Beauprez did to run in 2002.

The court ruling could also have some impact on a redistricting challenge in Texas, where the Republican Legislature drew new boundaries this fall that could jeopardize at least half a dozen House Democrats in the Lone Star State.

“This decision today is a direct rebuke to [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [Texas] and Republican leaders in Washington who have sought to hold their narrow majority in the House by any undemocratic means necessary,” said DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “We look forward to a similar defeat of the illegal Republican re-redistricting in Texas.”

But while the issues in the two cases are the same — whether a legislature can re-open redistricting after a map has been put in place — the Texas Constitution differs slightly from Colorado’s, and a state court could interpret the constitution differently.

“Until a federal court weighs in, I don’t think you can say anything about [the Colorado court’s] effects on other states,” said Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.