Arizona Supreme Court rejects bid to reinstate redistricting panel chair - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

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Arizona Supreme Court rejects bid to reinstate redistricting panel chair

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Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 5:17 pm

Colleen Mathis will not be getting her job back as chair of the Independent Redistricting Commission -- and the panel will remain politically deadlocked, at least for the time being.

Late Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court turned aside a plea by Mathis, and a separate one by commission attorneys, to reinstate her while the justices weigh the legality of her firing last week by Gov. Jan Brewer.

The justices gave no reason for their decision. But in doing so, they rejected arguments that keeping Mathis in a state of legal limbo -- and leaving the five-member commission without a tie-breaking vote -- will cause immediate harm.

Tuesday's ruling is at least an interim victory for Brewer. Her attorneys had argued that the governor's decision is entitled to legal deference and that there was no reason to let Mathis resume her duties while the court examines the firing.

But nothing in Tuesday's action means the court has decided whether Mathis was properly dismissed. That will have to wait for a hearing now set for Nov. 17.

Despite that, gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said Brewer is pleased.

"This ensures that Chairwoman Mathis will not be part of the commission in making critical decisions on its behalf while we await a final decision on the merits of this case,'' he said.

The governor has been particularly concerned that Mathis, the political independent on the panel, would unite with the two Democrats to push through final approval of maps for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts. Those are maps that Brewer and Republicans contend were not properly drawn and do not meet constitutional requirements.

If that occurs, Benson said, it creates new legal hurdles to get them overturned. The governor would prefer to deal with the problem by having Mathis replaced with a new chairman who would push the commission to create new maps -- maps she and other Republicans would find more politically acceptable.

Technically speaking, nothing precludes the remaining four members of the commission from approving those draft maps Brewer does not like without Mathis. That, however, is not likely to occur.

The draft congressional lines were approved on a 3-2 vote, with Mathis siding with the Democrats. And while the draft legislative map had a 4-1 vote, with Republican Scott Freeman in support, he indicated at the time that he was only supporting the plan to put it out for comment and made no commitment to backing it without significant changes.

Changes are what Republicans want.

GOP lawmakers have cited instances where they say the lines were drawn in ways that took away the safe districts that existed for several Republican members of the congressional delegation. They also cited instances where Republican legislators were placed in the same district, forcing them to compete against each other.

None of that is illegal. In fact, the redistricting commission is forbidden from considering where candidates live.

What is illegal, according to the governor, is drawing the lines in ways that split "communities of interest'' in a bid to create more politically competitive districts. Brewer said that, coupled with alleged violations of the Open Meeting Law in selecting the firm to help draw the maps, makes Mathis guilty of gross misconduct and substantial neglect of duty, both grounds in the Arizona Constitution which permits the governor to fire a commissioner if she can get the consent of two-thirds of the Senate.

Attorneys for Mathis and the commission as a whole contend nothing she did fits either category. And they want the high court to rule that Brewer acted illegally in firing her and the Republican-controlled Senate broke the law in ratifying that decision.

More than whether Mathis remains on the commission is at stake in the court fight.

Brewer also tried to also oust Linda McNulty and Jose Herrera, the two Democrats on the panel, saying she believes they were equally guilty of gross misconduct. But the governor had to back down after she was unable to get at least 20 of the 21 Senate Republicans -- the necessary two-thirds vote of the full Senate for removal -- to go along.

That, however, is not the end of the matter, with the governor saying she still has concerns about the Democrats and plans to monitor their activities. Brewer said the two Republicans are not culpable, at least in part because they voted against the congressional maps that the governor contends violate the constitutional requirements.

In anticipation the firing may be upheld, a special screening panel has started accepting applications from people unaffiliated with either party who want to replace Mathis. That panel has until Dec. 1 to nominate three finalists, with the four remaining commissioners choosing from that list.

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