Court upholds right of the people

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Arizona’s redistricting commission can continue to operate, rejecting a challenge by the state Legislature that sought to keep that power for itself. The court found that the people’s constitutional right of initiative and referendum in Arizona had the same standing as the Legislature.

In its 5-to-4 ruling on Monday in the Arizona case, the high court left intact redistricting commissions created by initiative measures in Arizona as well as in California. The case had posed a very slight risk to the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

“This ruling supports the notion of ‘direct democracy,’ which has been part of the Washington experience for more than a century, and upholds the wise decision by lawmakers and the voters to create the Redistricting Commission more than 30 years ago,’ ” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said in a statement. “To a degree our commission process was in some jeopardy in this case, so it is a relief that there is no question about its constitutionality.’’

The Washington commission was approved by our state’s voters as a state constitutional amendment requested by our Legislature in 1983.

Redistricting is that sometimes-boring exercise done every 10 years after the U.S. Census to redraw the lines of congressional and legislative districts and make their populations equal. Done unfairly by lawmakers, the majority party often protects its incumbents, waters down the clout of rival parties or marginalizes minority voters.

But with a citizen commission, this gerrymandering is a little harder to do. In Washington, the job is given to four partisan appointees on a Redistricting Commission who are chosen by lawmakers; those four then pick a nonvoting, nonpartisan chairman to run their proceedings. What leads to fairer results is that three of the four commissioners must agree on final plans that lawmakers later ratify.

Washington’s system is not perfect. Our congressional districts appear uncompetitive; Democrats hold six seats while Republicans have four, and only one of the 10 seats is considered competitive. In the Legislature some seats appear unusually safe for one party or the other.

On the upside, the Washington State Redistricting Commission, which drew its first maps in 1991, has largely avoided drawing districts with lizard-tail and dog-leg shapes that result from gross attempts at gerrymandering. Most districts encompass logical areas or communities.

Given the logjam our lawmakers have gotten themselves into over budgets in recent years, we shudder to think what might result if they tried fighting over legislative boundaries, too.

Although our state lawmakers still have a voice in our state’s process (they can make minor tweaks) and although our law came about at legislative request, there was enough concern about the Arizona challenge that our state’s Attorney General’s Office authored a friend-of-court brief on behalf of 13 states in support of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

The high court underscored the importance of the people‘s right to initiative as an alternative form of lawmaking.

“Redistricting is a legislative function, to be performed in accordance with the state’s prescriptions for lawmaking,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion. “The exercise of the initiative, we acknowledge, was not at issue in our prior decisions. But … we see no constitutional barrier to a state’s empowerment of its people by embracing that form of lawmaking.”

Thank goodness.