Just Thinking

The Redistricting Plot Thickens

by Richard Gilman

Legislative leaders have begun the chess game over the makeup of Arizona’s new Independent Redistricting Commission even before they have officially received the list of nominees to the panel.

Republicans Russell Pearce, president of the state Senate, and Kirk Adams, speaker of the House, have sent a letter challenging the pool of candidates on two counts:

– The inclusion of three candidates whom the legislative leaders contend are ineligible to serve.

– The extreme shortage of Republican candidates from anywhere but Maricopa County.

The quick response to the panel of 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and 5 independents put forward on December 8 by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments suggests the high stakes surrounding the naming of the redistricting commission, and the political maneuvering that is sure to follow.  The initiative passed in 2000 took the redistricting process out of the hands of the Legislature and turned it over to citizens but that doesn’t mean the Legislature isn’t going to influence the results in whatever ways it can.

For starters, the legislative leadership has the responsibility of choosing the first four members of the five-member commission.  But the constitutional measure that created the commission (see the full text of the law) is fairly explicit in spelling out how they must go about the selection process:

 – The first four selections are to be made, in turn, by the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate president, and the Senate minority leader.

 – No more than two of the first four selected can come from any one county.

– No more than two members of the full commission can come from one party.

– The first four individuals chosen will then meet to choose the fifth member, who will serve as the chairman of the group.

The logical assumption is that the two Republican leaders will pick two Republicans, and the two Democratic leaders will choose two Democrats.  Because those choices will fill each party’s two-member quota, the pivotal fifth member to be chosen will have to be an independent.  That’s exactly the way it worked when the first commission was chosen in 2001.

But neither party wants to be out-maneuvered.  One fear circulating in Republican circles is that the two minority leaders could choose independents rather than Democrats, thereby forcing the selection of a Democrat as the pivotal fifth member.  But that gambit, while it might seem to favor the Democrats, could easily backfire on them if the independents tilt right.

A more straightforward maneuver might arise if Adams as speaker of the House chooses a Republican from Maricopa County as the first selection.  If House minority leader Chad Campbell then chose a Democrat from Maricopa, Pearce as Senate president would be forced to pick a candidate from outside Maricopa County.  And the pool of 25 finalists includes only one Republican from outside Maricopa.

That, Pearce and Adams argued in a letter sent on December 10 to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, who chairs the appellate courts appointment commission, amounts to “no choice at all.”

They also contended that three individuals on the list violate a provision of the law that says commissioners may not be “appointed to, elected to, or a candidate for any other public office.”  They objected to:

– Paul Bender, who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation and chief judge of the Court of Appeals of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

– Mark Schnepf and Stephen Sossaman, both of whom are Queen Creek farmers who each serve on the board of directors of separate irrigation districts.  Sossaman is also chairman of the Queen Creek planning and zoning commission.

If this is a game of chess, grouping the three together is akin to sacrificing two knights to take a bishop.  Schnepf and Sossaman are stalwart Republicans.  Bender, a formidable law professor at Arizona State University, is a registered independent.

The appointments commission knew of the potential problem with the three prior to making its recommendations.  It chose to forward their names to the Legislature, leaving it to lawmakers to decide on the resolution.

In their letter, Pearce and Adams requested that the appointments commission reconsider the list immediately.  By law, the appointments commission must conclude its work by January 8.

But the issue may not stop there.  Separately, Adams is objecting to the exclusion of another potential panelist, whom he claims is the victim of religious discrimination by the appointments commission.   His charge pertained to a statement made during the commission’s deliberations on December 8.  A member of the commission, in noting the candidates’ religious activities, said he was concerned about maintaining the separation of church and state. 

One suspects that the grandmaster who decides the outcome of this chess game may end up being of the legal variety.

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