Commission chair Colleen Mathis, middle, pours over possible congressional redistricting maps as she is flanked by commissioners Linda McNulty, left, and commission vice chair, Scott Freeman during an Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission meeting Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Ross D. Franklin

Arizona voters have a constitutional right to wrest control of drawing congressional boundaries from the state Legislature, a federal court ruled late Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow acknowledged the arguments by Peter Gentala, an attorney for the Republican-controlled Legislature, that the U.S. Constitution spells out the “times, places and manner” of electing members of Congress “shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.”

Snow, writing for the majority of the three-judge panel, said he reads nothing in the Constitution that precludes the voters, as the ultimate lawmakers, from deciding that legislative chore can instead be given to the Independent Redistricting Commission, which is what they did in 2000. That, he said, makes the lines the commission drew for the state's nine congressional districts legal and enforceable.

House Speaker Andy Tobin said this is not the end of the matter. He pointed out that Judge Paul Rosenblatt sided with him and the other Republicans, ruling that the 2000 ballot measure empowering the commission to draw those lines amounts to an “evisceration” of the sole legal right of the Legislature to make that decision.

Tobin promised to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court which, under federal law, has to consider the plea.

“If they think it's frivolous, then it will be over,” he said.

Friday's ruling most immediately means that the current lines drawn by the commission will remain in place, at least for this year's election.

The Republican-controlled Legislature never challenged the 2000 ballot measure when it was first approved. Instead, lawmakers filed suit only after the commission redrew the lines following the 2010 census – and those lines resulted in a congressional delegation that had five Democrats and four Republicans.

In arguments to the court, Gentala said the only way to read the U.S. Constitution is that it requires congressional boundaries to be drawn by elected officials, meaning the 90 state lawmakers chosen by voters. By contrast, four members of the Independent Redistricting Commission are selected by legislative leaders; they choose the fifth member themselves.

But even during last month's hearing, Snow indicated he wasn't buying it.

“If you're telling us the constitutional test says it, I want you to show me where,” he told Gentala.

A separate lawsuit seeking to void those same congressional lines is playing out in Maricopa County Superior Court.

But that case is based on claims the commission did not follow procedures. And even if challengers win, that would simply send the maps back to the same commission to redraw.

A third lawsuit in federal court seeks to overturn the lines the panel drew for the state's 30 legislative districts. Plaintiffs in that case, all Republican interests, say the commission created districts of unequal population to give Democrats a political edge.

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