The California Supreme Court ruled today that state Senate maps drawn by a citizens commission will be used in this year's elections, despite a pending referendum to overturn them.
In a 73-page decision, justices evaluated several proposed alternative maps and concluded that the Senate lines drawn by the 14-member commission were the most appropriate and least disruptive to this year's elections.
Republican State Sen. Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel, a leader of the referendum drive, blasted the ruling as "shortsighted and disrespectful" of California voters who signed petitions and are awaiting the opportunity to vote on the commission's Senate maps. She characterized the decision as a throwback to a flawed, politically based precedent established by former Chief Justice Rose Bird.
"They kind of gutted the whole idea behind the referendum process," said Dave Gilliard, another leader of the drive to kill the Senate maps.
Peter Yao, current chairman of the commission, countered that use of the commission maps is important to maintain electoral stability and that the challenge is based on "partisan self interest" that has "cost precious taxpayer dollars to defend."
The issue came before the high court after a Republican-backed group, Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting, filed more than 711,000 signatures with county elections offices in a referendum to overturn Senate maps drawn by a 14-member citizens commission.
Californians will decide the fate of the newly drawn Senate districts in November if 504,760 of the signatures are from valid voters. Legislative candidates must file and run their campaigns before then, however, so justices needed to identify district maps to be in effect immediately.
County elections offices face a Feb. 24 deadline for certifying FAIR's referendum signatures. Thus far, they have verified 57,761 of 80,127 signatures checked. If the percentage of valid signatures holds steady, 72 percent, the referendum would qualify for the ballot.
Twenty Senate seats are up for grabs this year - and the results carry high-stakes politically.
GOP officials contend that the new, commission drawn lines would 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.
"If the current redistricting lines hold with regard to the Senate, the Republicans are going to have an enormously difficult time staying above the one-third threshold," California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro told The Bee this week.
"We're going to fight like the dickens to do it," he said, "which is in part why, of course, we went ahead with the referendum process. But it will be enormously difficult."
The Supreme Court noted that the commission met its constitutional duty in drawing the new Senate districts and that submittal of referendum petitions signed by perhaps 5 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election does not necessarily disqualify them pending a statewide vote.
Justices previously had rejected a FAIR lawsuit that contended the commission's Senate maps illegallydilute Latino voting clout in parts of the state and violate criteria established by voters in a 2008 ballot measure.
The Supreme Court, in today's decision to use the newly drawn Senate maps, considered alternatives that included using former districts in effect from 2002-2010; combining two commission-drawn Assembly districts to form new Senate districts; or amending the commission's approved Senate maps. Its ruling cited timing, constitutional, minority voting rights or other reasons to reject each one.
In selecting the new but contested Senate districts, the high court ruling said that boundary lines seem to comply with voter-approved criteria and are "a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process ... We believe these features may properly be viewed as an element favoring use of the commission-certified map."
* Amended at 11:41 a.m. to add reaction from the commission chairman and from leaders of FAIR.