The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday questioned the legislative redistricting plan adopted by the state’s inaugural independent legislative redistricting commission, during oral arguments in a legal struggle that’s developed in the high court’s chambers over the exact meaning of the constitutional redistricting amendments approved in 2018.
The state supreme court’s review of the redistricting plans adopted by the state’s legislative and congressional redistricting commissions is the final step in the months-long process that happens every ten years to reapportion political power.
In the coming days and weeks the court will decide not only whether the two commissions properly followed the new constitutional requirements, but also how future redistricting commissions operate, a fact emphasized in Monday’s hearing.
Two weeks ago, during oral arguments over the congressional redistricting plan adopted in late September, the court heard competing arguments over the role of race and ethnicity required while redistricting under the new independent redistricting commission system.
Several groups challenged the congressional redistricting plan, arguing that the new amended language of the state constitution now requires the commissions to take measures to empower minority voters beyond what’s required in the federal Voting Rights Act.
The same topic arose Monday, with justices noting different approaches by the two commissions.
Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart asked the legislative commission’s attorney directly whether the two commissions had the same view of the minority voter protection requirements, calling the legislative commission’s process “so much more robust” than the congressional commission’s process.
The legislative redistricting commission hired a minority voting rights expert to analyze population, demographic and election outcome data to evaluate where minority voting protections were called for, whereas the congressional redistricting commission did not.
Richard Kaufman, the attorney representing the legislative redistricting commission, said the legislative redistricting commission operated from the same premise as the congressional commission, that the state constitution only restates federal voting rights act requirements.
But Hart pressed Kaufman, zeroing in on the fact that the legislative map proposals include protections for the kind of “crossover” and “coalition” districts that proponents of the idea that the state constitution goes beyond the federal requirements have argued for.
Because of the much larger size of congressional districts, Kaufman answered, the legislative mapping process naturally comes across more instances of minority voter protection questions, so the analysis must be different. Each of the state’s new eight congressional districts is required to be within one person of the 721,714 target population. In contrast, legislative districts are allowed to deviate from the target population by five percentage points, meaning the state’s 35 Senate districts must be between about 157,000 and 173,000 people and the state’s 65 House districts must be between 84,000 and 92,000 people each.
In contrast with the congressional plan, where challengers said the maps fell far short of the minority voting protection requirements, critics of the legislative map focused on just a few districts in the Senate map.
Two groups, both of which were among the organizations arguing for scrapping and redoing the congressional plan, argued that the splitting of Lakewood in the Senate map was uncalled for and say it should be changed to keep Lakewood together.
A former mayor of Greeley, Tom Norton, argued that splitting Greeley in the adopted Senate map should be reversed as well.
The court will decide whether to enact or order changes to the legislative maps by Nov. 15, but will issue a decision on the congressional map by Nov. 1, next Monday.