Las Vegas Sun

June 27, 2017

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Redistricting stalemate could end up in court or special session

Many predicted the 2011 Legislature would be the impossible session — an ugly collision of freshman lawmakers and a looming battle over redistricting, against the backdrop of a historic budget crisis.

In at least one major respect, the prediction came to pass: Although lawmakers succeeded in breaking a standoff over the budget, they failed to agree on how to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

Not that they didn’t take a stab at it. Here’s the quick and dirty recap:

Democrats, who control the majority in both houses, drew their own maps. Republicans drew a competing set. Democrats twice passed their own maps in party-line votes and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed both.

With the 2011 Legislature adjourned sine die, that leaves two options:

• Sandoval calls a special session, parlaying the bipartisan negotiating that resulted in a budget agreement into a consensus on redistricting — an unlikely scenario given Sandoval’s consistent reticence to allow lawmakers back into session. Sandoval is expected to make an announcement as early as today on his decision.

• The courts make the ultimate decision — the most likely scenario, given both parties filed place-holder lawsuits at the start of session for this purpose.

“We are abdicating our responsibility to the court,” Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said.

Typically, redistricting has ground to a standstill because of fights over how many seats rural or Northern Nevada must surrender to Southern Nevada; or whose district is being jointed with whose; or which party is best set to hold or capture the Legislature.

Those dynamics were at play again this time, but the fundamental disagreement came down to the Voting Rights Act and whether that federal law born during the civil rights movement requires that minority voters hold majorities in a number of districts.

Republicans held fast to their so-called 1-4-8 scenario: one majority-minority congressional district; four state Senate districts; and eight Assembly districts.

Democrats disagree that minorities must represent a majority of voters in a small number of districts to influence elections and policies. Instead, they built maps giving Hispanics more than a 20 percent share of a larger number of districts. Of the 42 Assembly districts, for example, 20 have a Hispanic voting-age population of at least 20 percent.

“We doled out our plan, which was the 1-4-8 scenario, and they didn’t like the premise,” Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness said. “It was kind of the end of the discussion.”

One observer used the immigration debate in Congress as an example of Hispanics influencing policy. If Hispanics make up a majority of voters in one of four congressional districts, they’ll have a single representative to pressure. If they make up 20 to 30 percent of three districts, they’ll have more influence.

The court case is expected to take months. Secretary of State Ross Miller, the defendant in the lawsuit, has until June 20 to file a response to both parties’ complaints. That will set in motion the timeline for briefings and a hearing.

The case, which is before Carson City District Judge James T. Russell, can be resolved in a variety of ways, according to sources familiar with the process.

The constitution states that it is the Legislature’s “mandatory duty” to reapportion the districts every 10 years. So, it’s unlikely the judge will draw the boundaries. But the judge could choose between those already drawn by the parties and use one as a starting point, listen to legal arguments and make adjustments. He could simply read the constitution and order the Legislature back into session to resolve the dispute, giving them a narrow set of guidelines to follow. Or he could approve a temporary set of maps and order lawmakers to deal with it in 2013.

Ultimately, however, the case will be decided by the Nevada Supreme Court. “There is going to be a lot of politics around this, but in the end I think the maps are going to end up however Chief Justice (Michael) Douglas says they end up,” said a Democratic source familiar with the lawsuit.

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