Idaho redistricting fight upgraded from “debacle” to “fiasco”

23 Jan

The great Gerrymander strikes again, this time in Idaho, as state representatives can't seem to draft a constitutional redistricting map, or even agree on anything.

Idaho has been awash in drama over the state redistricting process that for most states, most years, is something that isn’t too hard to accomplish. Today, the drama deepened, as state Republicans fired two members of the redistricting commission for, as some speculate, being too willing to cave to compromises with Democratic lawmakers. The decision is especially bold, as the Idaho attorney general has already ruled any firings illegal. But Republicans aren’t dropping the issue. They fired back saying their decision to fire commissioners is based on two Idaho Supreme Court cases and is backed by 45-year-old state law.

But that’s just the tail end of the drama. Believe it or not, we’re nearing the one-year anniversary since this redistricting battle began. Let’s remember how this all started, shall we?

Every decade, states use fresh census data to redraw legislative districts to better reflect the changing population and its representation in the state house. Politics often play into this process, leading some state legislators to draw new maps that are politically advantageous (see: gerrymandering). It’s usually very complicated, but rarely something states can’t handle eventually. After all, a successful government is built on compromise, right?

Idaho commissioners tasked with the always-contentious issue worked through the summer and came up with a big goose egg after fights between Republicans and Democrats failed to yield any kind of compromise. So it was back to the drawing boards, but this time there was a twist. Because of a 2009 law that banned past commissioners from serving on the panel again, the two parties had to come up with an entirely new redistricting commission to hash it out.

The second time around, heads must have been cooler because they actually finalized and approved a map! The commission unveiled their final redistricted map in October, but quickly found opposition from a coalition led by Twin Falls county. Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs, representing Twin Falls, Kootenai, Owyhee and Teton counties and the cities of Twin Falls, Buhl, Filer and Hansen, argued that the redistricting contained too many unnecessary county splits, making it unconstitutional. The state of Idaho disagreed and the two parties took the fight to the Idaho Supreme Court.

It was a quiet winter break, as the state supreme court mulled over the arguments, but finally announced on Jan. 18 that the map was in fact unconstitutional. This morning, the Idaho Republicans responded with their bold firing of two commissioners.

State Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney announced Monday morning that they were firing Randy Hansen and Dolores Crow from the Idaho Redistricting Commission, effective immediately. Idaho Democrats fired back in an e-mail titled “GOP Leaders Above the Law” in which they challenged Semanko and Denney’s authority to fire the commissioners. The press release had some harsh words for the state Republicans:

Larry Grant, Chairman of the Idaho State Democratic Party said, “This year’s redistricting fight is not between Democrats and Republicans.  It’s a fight with GOP Party bosses on one side and reasonable Republicans on the other. The first redistricting commission stalemated and was unable to draw new legislative and congressional districts for the State because the GOP commissioners were instructed not to agree to anything.”

The Attorney General’s office has issued a legal opinion that redistricting commissioners can’t be fired, but that hasn’t stopped GOP leaders from ignoring the advice of Idaho’s top elected lawyer.  Both Speaker of the Idaho House Lawerence Denney and Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko have told their appointees to hit the road and don’t come back—and both party bosses have shown little interest in the state’s constitution.
“There was a rumor going around even before the first redistricting commission was called that the GOP wanted to sabotage the process,” Grant said.  “It’s pretty obvious that GOP leadership wants the commission to fail so they can put redistricting back in the legislature where they can use it to continue to purge their party of moderate Republicans.”
The Republicans, not to be outdone, fired back with a press release of their own, citing existing Supreme Court decisions (1963’s Gowey v. Siggelkow and 1988’s Hansen v. White) that they say grant them the authority:
Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko delivered a legal opinion to the Secretary of State today, revealing that the Idaho Attorney General’s opinion regarding the replacement of Redistricting Commissioners is contrary to the controlling legal authority and clearly in error.
Semanko, himself a practicing attorney for the past 18 years, with numerous appearances before the Idaho Supreme Court, and former General Counsel for the Republican National Committee, said that the AG’s opinion cannot be credibly or validly relied upon by the Secretary of State or anyone else, in light of the controlling Idaho Supreme Court precedent to the contrary.
Delores Crow has already announced that, despite the firing, she has no plans to step down, which will probably mean ANOTHER court battle, this time over who even has the authority to choose the panel to redraw the redistricting map. Once that happens, the commission, new or old, will have to redraw the map once again, and hope that nobody challenges it again.
The goal is to have this all sorted out by the Idaho Primary, which has already been pushed back from May to August because of this ordeal. With today’s news I think we can officially graduate this redistricting fight from “debacle” to “fiasco.”
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One Response to “Idaho redistricting fight upgraded from “debacle” to “fiasco””

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [Morning Briefs] Highway Stabbing Maybe Not A Big Deal After All - 03/16/2012

    […] Idaho Supreme Court dismissed a bid by top Republican lawmakers to fire two people from the state’s redistricting commission Wednesday. Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko were looking […]

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