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Voter redistricting maps by commission can go forth, WA Supreme Court says

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Harvey Barrison
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Flickr - tinyurl.com/zhj7uae
The Washington Supreme Court on Friday declared the state's redistricting commission had met its deadline and declined to exercise its authority to draft new legislative and congressional maps.

In a surprise order Friday morning, the Washington Supreme Court declined to take on the job of drafting new congressional and legislative maps. Instead, the court declared the state's bipartisan redistricting commission had finished its work on time and in compliance with the state law last month.

"This is not a situation in which the Supreme Court must step in because the Commission has failed to agree on a plan it believes complies with state and federal requirements," the five-page order said.

The order, signed by all nine justices, represented a dramatic turn of events. Previously, it was presumed that the commission had blown its November 15 midnight deadline and that the Supreme Court would, by law, have to assume responsibility for drawing new maps.

Instead, the justices determined that a detailed timeline of events provided by the commission’s non-voting chair showed "that the Commission approved both redistricting plans by the constitutional deadline."

Specifically, the justices found that each set of maps was approved prior to the midnight deadline. The fact the commission transmitted the redistricting plan to the Legislature after midnight, the justices said, was not reason enough to declare the process failed to comply with the law.

“The court concludes that the primary purpose of achieving a timely redistricting plan would be impeded, not advanced, by rejecting the Commission’s completed work,” the order said.

The court, however, did not weigh in on the constitutionality of the maps, which could still be challenged under state and federal law.

In a statement last month, the group Redistricting Justice for Washington (RJW) said the new maps “fail communities of color.” Specifically, RJW pointed to an analysis by the UCLA Voting Rights Project that said the commission had failed to draw a federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) compliant majority-Latino district in the Yakima area.

“It appears this district was drawn to give it the appearance of being a VRA compliant district, by hitting the 50% Latino threshold but was crafted in such a way to ensure it would not elect Latino candidates of choice,” the analysis said.

In an interview, Republican redistricting commissioner Paul Graves, a lawyer by training, disagreed.

“I believe the map we drew … is fully compliant with the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” Graves said, referring to the section of the VRA that prohibits racial discrimination in voting practices or procedures.

On Friday, an RJW representative said the group was in discussions about filing a VRA lawsuit.

“I can say that we are actively exploring pursuing legal action,” said Andrew Hong, one of RJW’s co-leaders.

Redistricting is a once-a-decade process that involves redrawing political boundaries based on population changes as determined by the most recent census. Since 1990, Washington has relied on a bipartisan commission of two Democrats and two Republicans to draw the maps. At least three of the commissioners must vote to accept each set of maps. This year, the maps earned unanimous approval from the commission.

Under Washington law, the Legislature has 30 days from the start of the legislative session in January to amend the plan before it becomes final. Any changes, though, cannot affect more than two percent of a district’s population and must be agreed upon by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

Never before has a Washington redistricting commission missed its deadline. But this year, the commission was time-crunched. Census data was delayed due to the pandemic and the deadline for the commissioners to submit their agreed-upon maps to the Legislature was moved up from January 1 to mid-November.

On the evening of November 15, when the commission convened its virtual public meeting to adopt the new maps, the commissioners had still not reached final agreement. They continued negotiating out of public view right up to the midnight deadline when they hurriedly took their votes.

At that point, the public had not seen the maps. The secret nature of the final negotiations provoked immediate recriminations, and even a lawsuit, from open government advocates and redistricting-watchers who said the process lacked transparency. The following day, the commission announced that, by its own determination, it had failed to meet the statutory deadline and was handing the process off to the Supreme Court, as required by law.

On Friday, the court’s decision to boomerang the process back to the commission prompted a flurry of reactions, including from the commission itself.

“I’m pleased that [the justices] have affirmed the completed work of the commission,” said Sarah Augustine, the commission’s non-voting chair. “But from my point of view it was really important … that we acknowledge the authority of the court.”

Republican commissioner Joe Fain, a former state senator, also praised the court’s decision. In a text message, he cited the “political doctrine question” which says courts should decline cases that involve a political question.

“The final 24 hours of the body’s work were nothing short of frustrating and disappointing, but the court’s decision validates the work and the finality of the redistricting plan,” Fain wrote.

Legislative leaders also weighed in.

“This provides certainty going forward for the people and communities of our state, and I appreciate the Court moving quickly in this process,” said Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat, in a statement.

Her counterpart, House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox, also praised the decision: “There’s plenty to complain about the maps, but this was a chance, I think, for the judicial branch to respect the role of the legislative branch and I’m glad that they did.”

The state Senate’s top leader, though, was more tepid in his response. Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Democrat, said that while he respected the court’s authority, he was not in full agreement with the decision to hand the job back to the commission.

“We had hoped the Court would take a closer look at several aspects of the map that may not comply with state and federal laws and make changes, especially related to the proposed Legislative District in the Yakima Valley,” Billig said in a statement.

Fiercer criticism of the court came from the Northwest Progressive Institute, a liberal think tank. In a statement executive director Andrew Villeneuve said he was disappointed by the decision to accept the commission’s maps.

“It was clear to anyone who watched the Commission's chaotic, disorganized meeting on November 15th that it did not finish its work by the deadline,” Villeneuve said. “The Supreme Court had an opportunity here to rectify this wrong, and make a good ten year decision for our state, and sadly, it has declined to do so.”

Villeneuve added that the justices may still have a role to play in the event the maps are challenged in state court. He also called for the Legislature to enact reforms to the redistricting process, including a requirement that the public have at least seven days to review and comment on the final maps before they’re adopted.

This story has been updated.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."