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Lawsuits expected over new district maps

Matt Drange/California WatchThe commission meets at the Capitol to discuss the draft maps last month.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission approved the final drafts of the state's controversial new district maps today, setting off what many expect to be a flurry of lawsuits over the next two weeks.

The commission now has until Aug. 15 to formally certify the maps and present them to the secretary of state. If the maps are not adopted by then, they will be sent to the state Supreme Court.

A handful of special interest groups, including the California Friends of the African American Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting have objected to the lines and threatened to sue.

During a marathon public session last weekend the commission voted to retain a pair of major San Francisco law firms – Morrison Foerster and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Commission Chairman Gabino Aguirre, a registered Democrat and Santa Paula city councilman, defended the decision, which the state has backed by setting aside $1.5 million for litigation costs.

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“Ultimately, we would hope that the quality of the maps is such that it will convince everybody that we've followed all the criteria, and we've done our very best and we have actually been representative of the people of California,” Aguirre said. “However, because this is new territory and because of the complexity of what we've done, there are some folks who perhaps will not fully understand and appreciate the labor that has gone into this, the transparency of the process, the following of all that criteria and will in fact go to court to challenge us on those levels.”

Commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, who declined to state a party on voter registration forms and is from Oakland, said any potential lawsuit would be the “most important public policy decision of the decade.”

The move to go with two firms sent a strong message that the commission intends to fight any legal challenges, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Schnur said the chances of litigation were “pretty significant,” and that if the maps do end up in the hands of the Supreme Court the result might not be so bad for voters.

“At this point it seems almost certain that there will be a legal challenge,” he said, adding that when the court stepped in 20 years ago the results were the most equitable maps the state has seen “in a generation.”

“Giving this to the courts may have been the best reform to begin with,” he said. “But it would have been impossible to pass an initiative to do that in the first place.”

Formed when voters approved Proposition 11 in 2008, the commission must consider a variety of factors when drawing the maps, including geographical compactness, keeping communities of interest together and protecting minority representation pursuant to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ryan Emenaker, an assistant professor of political science at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, said the court has two options. It can either have a trio of masters redraw the lines, or send the maps back to the commission for additional tinkering.

“Sometimes they will help draw the lines, a lot of times they will just kick it back,” Emenaker said. “The courts generally try to defer to regulatory and other agencies.”

Unlike in previous years when state legislators drew the lines, Emenaker said the fact that the commission is made up of members outside the Legislature could prove to be an added layer of protection in any potential lawsuit.

Despite the call for legal action, Emenaker said he thought special interest groups would have a tough time proving their case that the maps somehow diminish minority representation. This is especially apparent in places like Los Angeles, he said, where the population of blacks has shrunk in some areas while Hispanic and Asian populations are growing ever faster.

“Unless the courts are going to be overly heavy-handed, I don't know that the legal challenges will end up being successful,” Emenaker said. “It's hard to say, but I'm pretty skeptical to see them go very far.”

While the fate of the commission's latest maps remains unclear, Emenaker said there is one group people can expect to take clear stances almost immediately: politicians.

While some legislators find themselves in districts with multiple incumbents under the new maps, many districts are now without a single lawmaker, prompting at least 10 legislators to already announce a run for Congress.

“Elected officials haven't really wanted to say anything as far as their plans until the maps were final,” Emenaker said. “Now I think you're about to see that change.”

Stanley Forbes, a Yolo County farmer and bookstore owner who is one of two commissioners tasked with crafting a contract with the law firms, said he was confident in the map's chances of withstanding any litigation. While Forbes said the commission has taken great lengths to avoid legal battles, he was almost certain there would be lawsuits brought on grounds that the group hasn't thought of.

“We certainly anticipate that there will be litigation,” he said. “What we've done is prepare maps that we believe would withstand those challenges, and then hired really, really good attorneys.”

While final certification of the maps won't come for another two and a half weeks, Forbes said the commission would likely use the time to figure out what's next for the group's 14 members, all of whom will serve 10-year terms.

“We really don't know what the role (of the commission) will be after this," Forbes said. "Right now, we're really just focused on the short term.”

He added that he continues to be impressed by the dedication of his fellow commissioners and the level of interaction with the public. To date the commission has received nearly 20,000 comments in writing and more than 2,700 comments at public hearings across the state.

“There was a real back and forth dialogue on this. ... It's just been astounding,” Forbes said.

In order to approve the final draft, at least nine of the 14 commissioners must vote yes, including three yes votes each from Republicans, Democrats and those affiliated with neither party. To view the maps visit http://wedrawthelines.ca.gov.

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