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U.S. Supreme Court gerrymandering cases could influence Colorado

April 12, 2018 Updated: April 12, 2018 at 1:02 pm
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FILE - In this June 1, 2017, file photo, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gather for an official group portrait to include new Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, top row, far right, at the Supreme Court Building in Washington. Seated, front row, from left are, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. Back row, standing, from left are, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Gorsuch. Gorsuch became the Supreme Court’s newest member a year ago on April 10, 2017 . President Donald Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia has now heared more than 60 cases on issues including gerrymandering, union fees, cellphone and data privacy and gambling on sports. He’s written his first Supreme Court opinions but also dealt with his first complaint as a member of the court’s cafeteria committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could have an impact on a potential Colorado vote on gerrymandering.

Supporters of a change in Colorado's redistricting law want to get the issue on the upcoming ballot in November.

On March 28, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Benisek v. Lamone concerning how much control state officials in Maryland should have over their right to redraw voting districts.

Republicans said Democrats gerrymandered a district long held by a Maryland Republican congressman, using the traditional term for drawing district boundaries to benefit one group over another.

After the lines were redrawn, a Democrat won the next election and two more afterward. The Republicans sued, calling the redistricting unconstitutional.

"The evidence is unequivocal," attorney Michael Kimberly, representing a resident of the affected area, told the justices. "It's deliberately making it more difficult for particular citizens to achieve electoral success because their views are disapproved by those in power."

The Supreme Court is trying to decide whether states should be required to follow certain guidelines on redistricting, rather than leaving the decision to state lawmakers.

Benisek v. Lamone is one of a string of cases concerning redistricting that the high court has involved itself in recently:

Last October, justices heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case from Wisconsin in which Republicans were accused of abusing the redistricting process. A ruling in that case is expected by the end of June.

After a lower court struck down congressional districts in North Carolina as unfair, the Supreme Court in January temporarily froze that order pending an appeal, leaving existing district boundaries in place.

Arguments in a Texas case alleging racial gerrymandering are slated to be heard by the justices later this month.

Other redistricting cases are pending in various courts that involve Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Virginia.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper acknowledged the gerrymandering problem during an interview this week when he said, "I think it's a risk always."

If the state's political parties could agree on a bipartisan way to resolve the dilemma, he said, "That's great." However, he had no proposals to offer.

Ironically, during oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Benisek v. Lamone, four liberal justices sided primarily with Republicans who want to void the Maryland redistricting.

Justice Stephen Breyer said a map of Maryland's redistricting after the 2010 census "seems like a pretty clear violation of the Constitution - in some form."

He suggested the Supreme Court take action to resolve what he called "extreme gerrymandering."

The Supreme Court's fence-sitters, who are most likely to decide the outcome of the case, were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. They both asked questions during the oral arguments but gave no hint of how they would vote before the court's judgment is issued later this spring.

Thirty-seven states - including Colorado - give state lawmakers significant input into how lines are drawn for voting districts.

Under the current system, state legislatures redraw their voting districts after each 10-year federal census. They are supposed to strictly follow changes in population numbers.

However, the lawmakers often are accused of abusing their discretion by allowing the party that holds a majority in the legislature to redraw districts in a way that favors their own candidates.

Like Maryland, minority party members and some citizens' groups accuse Colorado lawmakers of gerrymandering.

Two Colorado advocacy groups have joined efforts in a plea for a measure on the next ballot that would let voters decide district boundaries. The non-partisan commissions they seek in their proposal would be required to closely follow federal voting laws.

The groups, Fair Districts Colorado and People Not Politicians, say a new law would result in more middle-of-the-road elected officials and less partisan bickering in the General Assembly.

Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, said giving voters more power over Colorado's redistricting laws leaves many questions unresolved.

"Whether they'd draw districts in a way that's substantially different from those drawn in the past remains to be seen," Masket said. "The experience of other states suggests that such districts wouldn't be radically different from current ones."

Nevertheless, he said the Supreme Court has hinted recently that now might be the time for change.

"The court has traditionally granted a good deal of deference to states in drawing legislative districts for explicitly partisan purposes," Masket said. "But on this and other recent redistricting cases, justices have indicated a growing unease with highly partisan redistricting plans. There seems to be a point at which justices think that a given map is just too partisan, although that point remains ill-defined."

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