Wednesday, April 20, 2016
A unanimous Supreme Court today upheld a redistricting plan drawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that included an 8.8% population deviation in order to comply with nonretrogression under the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is a win for the controversial Independent Commission and its state legislative map. It's also a mark in favor of allowing relatively greater population deviations (up to 10%) to comply with the VRA. And the case reaffirms the 10% threshold for allowable population deviations under the one-person-one-vote principle.
This is the case where the Redistricting Commission took an initial cut at a state legislative map by drawing cookie-cutter boundaries that yielded a 4.07% population deviation. The Commission then tinkered with the boundaries in order to comply with nonretrogression (that is, to ensure that there was no diminution in the number of districts in which minority groups could elect their preferred candidate of choice) under Section 5 of the VRA (when that Section still had force, pre-Shelby County). The result was a second-draft map that complied with the VRA, but also yielded an 8% population deviation (increased over the 4.07% deviation in the first cut), and put in play a previously solid Republican district. The Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the revised plan, with the two Republican members dissenting.
A group of Arizona voters sued, arguing that the plan violated the one-person-one-vote rule, because the Commission increased the population deviation for partisan purposes.
The Court disagreed. Justice Breyer wrote for the unanimous Court that the plan didn't violate equal protection. Justice Breyer wrote that the plan fell within the presumptively allowable 10% population deviation for the one-person-one-vote rule, and that the plaintiffs therefore had to show that the deviation reflected the predominance of illegitimate reapportionment factors. But the plaintiffs couldn't meet their burden here. In particular, Justice Breyer wrote that the record reflected that the deviation was the result of the Commission's efforts to comply with the VRA by retaining the number of ability-to-elect districts in the state--a legitimate reapportionment factor.
Justice Breyer wrote that Shelby County had no bearing on this case, because it came down after the Commission issued its plan.