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About a month before state Senate candidates must file for the June primary election, the California Supreme Court wrestled Tuesday with which district boundaries should be used if a pending referendum qualifies for the ballot.

A decision by the high court is expected this month on the issue, created by the filing of more than 711,000 signatures by a Republican-backed group seeking to overturn new Senate maps drawn by the state's citizens redistricting commission.

In a 75-minute hearing, justices focused on technical issues, including whether they can only rule if the referendum is "likely to qualify" and what standard should be used to measure that.

Justices also questioned attorneys for the redistricting commission, the secretary of state's office and the Republican-backed group that led the drive -- Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting (FAIR) -- about options if the court decides to intervene.

Twenty Senate seats are up for grabs this year, those of odd-numbered districts. The filing period for prospective candidates begins Feb. 13th, long before voters would decide the fate of the newly drawn commission maps if the referendum qualifies for the November ballot.

The issue carries high stakes politically, because many analysts have said the newly drawn districts could give Democrats a strong chance of gaining two additional seats in the Senate, enough to gain the two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes or fees.

County elections officials currently are in the process of determining whether FAIR's petitions contain the 504,760 valid voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Counting is not expected to be completed until late February.

Judging from justices' questions Tuesday, a key issue is whether the state Supreme Court could order the newly drawn Senate districts to be used for the 2012 elections even if the referendum qualifies.

Using the new maps would enable elections to proceed smoothly, without the timing difficulties and candidate confusion inherent in trying to create new lines with the primary election looming.

But attorney Charles Bell, representing FAIR, told the justices that using the contested Senate maps would not be fair to voters who have exercised their legal right to challenge them.

"They don't want the political process foreclosed," Bell said.

Attorney James Brosnahan, representing the redistricting commission, said the panel's position is that its new Senate maps should be used this year, even if the referendum qualifies for the ballot, because they best comply with federal voting rights law and voter-approved criteria.

Other possibilities for the court include appointing a special master to draw new maps; using Senate maps that were in place from 2001 to 2011; or ensuring that two of the redistricting commission's new Assembly districts are combined - a process called "nesting" - to create each new Senate district.

FAIR, in a separate lawsuit, contended that the commission's newly approved Senate maps dilute Latino voting clout in parts of the state and violate criteria established by voters in a 2008 ballot measure that created the redistricting commission. The Supreme Court rejected that suit recently.


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