Supreme Court upholds Arizona redistricting plan seen as friendly to Democrats

By Eric DuVall  |  April 20, 2016 at 1:50 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) -- In a unanimous decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's redistricting plan, which was seen as making the state more favorable terrain for Democrats.

The decision, authored by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, answers a narrow question and comes in a case that was brought prior to Shelby County vs. Holder, when the High Court mostly abolished the strict redistricting oversight provisions in the Voting Rights Act.

Arizona was one of the states that had been required to submit redistricting plans to the Justice Department, which reviewed them for racial bias before allowing them to go into effect.

In the case decided Wednesday, the bipartisan Arizona redistricting commission created new district lines using a grid system that created no more than a 4 percent deviation in any district from the state's overall racial makeup. The commission, made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent, then tweaked the lines to ensure the same number of minority-dominant districts as had existed before.

The end result was several districts that had appeared, demographically, to be safe Republican seats ending up with more traditionally Democratic voters, turning them into tossup seats. The new plan created a nearly 9 percent deviation from what would be mathematically "equal" districts, but preserved the same number of minority districts.

The Supreme Court has only rarely required states to offer justification for redistricting plans that include statistical deviations of less than 10 percent.

Commissioners moved the lines, mindful at the time that the Justice Department was unlikely to approve a redistricting plan that reduced the number of minority-majority districts.

Still, the commission's two Republican members voted against it and filed suit when the other three members approved.

A three-judge panel upheld the commission's decision in a federal appeals court and on Wednesday, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 to uphold that ruling.

"In a case like this one, those attacking a state-approved plan must show that it is more probable than not that a deviation of less than 10 percent reflects the predominance of illegitimate reapportionment factors rather than the 'legitimate considerations' to which we have referred ... Given the inherent difficulty of measuring and comparing factors that may legitimately account for small deviations from strict mathematical equality, we believe that attacks on deviations under 10 percent will succeed only rarely, in unusual cases. And we are not surprised that the appellants have failed to meet their burden here," the decision states.

The legal term "legitimate considerations" is at the core of the court's limited decision. Among the previous "legitimate considerations" for altering election districts was a state's desire to proactively meet the standards under rules set forth in the federal Voting Rights Act. Because the Arizona case was brought before Shelby vs. Holder, which did away with the Voting Rights Act reviews, the suit was decided on old precedent. After Shelby vs. Holder, states will have a much easier time redrawing election district lines without having to satisfy federal provisions meant to preserve minority voting rights.

In the Arizona case, the justices did not offer any clues as to how they will regard future redistricting plans that attempt to preserve minority voting rights.

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