By Rebekah L. Sanders and Mary Jo Pitzl, The Arizona Republic
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday to protect the independent commission that drew Arizona's congressional map was a win for voters who wanted competitive elections and a starting gun for political hopefuls who had put plans on hold waiting for the ruling.
The court, siding 5-4 with the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, prevented a major shake-up of district boundaries that could have transformed toss-up U.S. House seats into Republican strongholds.
A number of potential candidates for Congress were waiting to see how the court ruled before deciding to run, from Democrats concerned their chances would be demolished to Republicans wondering whether their homes would fall in the new district lines.
State Sen. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, within hours of the ruling, announced an exploratory committee for northeastern Arizona's 1st Congressional District, where Democrats and Republicans have swapped control for years.
"This prevents gerrymandering on either side of the aisle, whether it's Republicans or Democrats," she said of the high court's decision. "It provided clarity for the upcoming 2016 election."
Reaction to the ruling in Arizona Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which came on the court's final day for issuing opinions, was quick and divided along partisan and ideological lines. Progressives praised it. Republicans fumed that it usurped clearly stated legislative powers.
The ruling preserves the authority of the commission, created by voters in 2000, to draw congressional boundaries every decade after the census. It also draws Arizona legislative districts.
The Republican-led Legislature challenged the commission's authority over congressional lines, arguing the U.S. Constitution's Elections Clause gave that power exclusively to lawmakers. If the Legislature had prevailed, GOP leaders planned to dramatically alter the political map for the next election.
"The Elections Clause permits the people of Arizona to provide for redistricting by independent commission," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion. "The invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution's conception of the people as the font of governmental power. It would thus be perverse to interpret 'Legislature' in the Elections Clause to exclude lawmaking by the people."
Joining Ginsburg in the majority were Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the dissent, was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Ginsburg also saw wider implications if the court had agreed with the Legislature, writing it could have cast doubt on other election measures approved by Arizona voters.
But the four dissenting justices said a plain reading of the Constitution gives that power to the elected Legislature.
Roberts said "Legislature" means the "state Legislature." It took a "magic trick" for the majority to read it otherwise, Roberts wrote.
The ruling has emboldened activists to begin pushing for independent commissions in other states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group.
"Activists in every state are looking at the Arizona decision as one that is a thumbs up for citizen-led reform," she said. "We've got folks on the ground in about a dozen states where they've put their efforts on pause while they waited for the Supreme Court to decide this case and where they are now really ready to put reform in the driver's seat."
Colleen Coyle Mathis, chairwoman of the Arizona commission, predicted the ruling will reverberate in other states.
"This was a big win for the citizens of Arizona, and I am very glad independent commissions like ours remain an option for those in other states who value responsiveness in their elected officials and view competition as a good thing," she said.
The commission in 2012 carved out nine congressional districts, three of which were viewed as swing districts where a candidate of either major party had a good chance of winning.
The Arizona Advocacy Network praised the ruling as an affirmation that Arizonans can "legislate from the ballot box," said executive director Sam Wercinski. He said the decision protects Arizona's initiative process, where citizens can take issues directly to the voters via the ballot. The network advocates on behalf of broadening public involvement in elections and the government process.
Dennis M. Burke was one of the authors of the 2000 ballot measure that created the commission.
"It was frivolous of the Republicans in the Legislature to challenge the law and take up the court's time with it," Burke said. "But the upside is it has shined a very bright light on a reform that other states will now take seriously."
California followed Arizona's lead a decade ago. Burke said activists from other states regularly contact him and others involved in the 2000 effort to learn what they can do in their states.
Arizona GOP legislative leaders who brought the suit said they were disappointed, adding the court "has decided to depart from the clear language of the Constitution."
"It's unfortunate that the clear constitutional design has been demolished in Arizona by five lawyers at the high court," Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said in a statement.
Biggs said he was "highly disillusioned" and speculated the ruling could have implications far beyond drawing political boundaries. "This ruling seems to broaden the term 'Legislature,'" Biggs said, and that could call into question any of the 90-member body's other actions.
State GOP Chairman Robert Graham called the decision "baffling" because it solidifies power with a five-member, unelected body. The better way to fight gerrymandering, he argued, would be to leave that power with the 90 state lawmakers who are subject to elections every two years.
Election-law professor Jessica Levinson said she was surprised by the ruling after arguments in March appeared to favor the Arizona Legislature.
"I thought that they would give the constitutional provision a strict and narrow reading," said Levinson of Loyola Law School. "I thought this was going to be another one of the cases where the court undermines voters' rights and protections. This seems like it's a validation of citizens' ability to use their lawmaking power through the process of direct democracy."
Arizona's three congresswomen in swing seats had the most at stake in the redistricting decision.
The Legislature, if it had won, likely would have targeted U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, by lumping her into the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego in Phoenix, or adding more Republican voters to Sinema's 9th District.
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, also a Democrat, sidestepped the dilemma by deciding before the ruling to run for the U.S. Senate, creating an open seat in the 1st District, where McGuire has launched her exploratory committee.
Some observers speculated Kirkpatrick might abandon her Senate campaign and return to her House seat now that the ruling has preserved the district, but a spokesman said that won't happen.
Others had wondered whether Sinema would challenge Kirkpatrick for Senate or stay in her House seat, especially now that the ruling reinforces her re-election odds there. Sinema staffers did not respond to a question about her plans.
The third Arizona representative affected by the court decision is Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally. Though she could have benefited if her toss-up Tucson district had been redrawn to encompass more conservative voters, she didn't criticize the court. In a statement, she simply said she respected its decision.
Independent commissions across the country also could have been dismantled and political maps redrawn, in some cases in favor of Democrats, such as in California.
California Republicans were relieved by the ruling. Tony Quinn, who has worked as a GOP redistricting consultant, told the Los Angeles Times the decision likely spared two Republican House seats in that state.
Other lawsuits could still imperil the Arizona commission. It faces two other challenges to its work.