Court orders redistricting commission back to work

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Democrats and Republicans on the legislature’s deadlocked redistricting commission to resume negotiations over a congressional map, calling it “quintessentially a legislative function.”

At the same time, the justices prepared for a continued legislative deadlock by setting a deadline of Friday for Democrats and Republicans to nominate a special master to oversee the court’s drawing of congressional districts for the first time.

The court’s order gave some encouragement to Republicans, who called for a special master to consider major changes to a map that has yielded only Democratic victories since 2008 in all five U.S. House districts.

Democrats have proposed a map that makes the minimal changes necessary to equalize population in the five U.S. House Districts, while the GOP has called for changes to the awkwardly drawn 5th Congressional District.

“I think the court realized this is not a simple task, and they are going to need the help. We suggested they appoint a special master, at least,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, co-chairman of the redistricting commission.

Democratic CD map

The Democratic map made minimal changes

Cafero said the GOP was awaiting a Democratic response to its compromise map when a deadlock was declared on Dec. 21, the court-ordered deadline. With Tuesday’s order, it is up to the Democrats to respond, he said.

“It’s sort of in their court at this point. I’m not going to bid against myself,” Cafero said.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, the other co-chairman, issued a terse statement that conveyed nothing: “We have received the Court’s order and will work with the Court to arrive at a resolution.”

But the court wants more: The justices acknowledged that the state Constitution requires them to break a deadlock, but they also left no doubt that the commission is to resume work and resolve what is a political matter.

GOP final CD map

The GOP map gets rid of the ‘hook’ created in 2001.

“We are mindful that the drawing of voting districts is a political question and is quintessentially a legislative function, but we are constrained by the mandate of … the Connecticut constitution,” they said. “While the foregoing proceedings are ongoing, however, the Commission shall continue working to agree on a redistricting plan, and we maintain hope that legislative action will be forthcoming.”

But House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, a commission member, said the Democrats are unlikely to engage in further negotiations since they believe the status quo is defensible, while every change proposed by the GOP means giving up a Democratic advantage.

“It’s hard for me to imagine there is anyplace for us to go but the courts,” Sharkey said.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said, “If we could have agreed, we would have done it by the 21st.”

The court ordered Democrats and Republicans to appear before it Friday at 1 p.m. to answer questions about naming a special master and the procedures the master would follow to produce a map for the court no later than Jan. 27.

A new map must be filed with the secretary of the state by Feb. 15.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, a commission member, said the Democrats have to respond to the GOP’s last offer or run the risk of a special master making even more radical changes than the GOP plan.

“If they want to respond to our plan, that’s on the table,” McKinney said.

Redistricting in Connecticut is a bipartisan function. A legislative panel of four Democrats and four Republicans was supposed to finish its work in September. When members failed, a ninth member was added — but Democrats and Republicans never have used the ninth member as a tiebreaker.

By custom, they either agree unanimously on a map — as they did for the General Assembly districts — or they cede responsibility to the court. When they missed their constitutional deadline of Nov. 30, the court gave them until noon on Dec. 21.

Republicans on the bipartisan panel gave up on a radical plan to create a solidly Republican 4th District, but they continued to press for major changes that would have improved the GOP’s chances in the 2012 race for the open 5th District seat by shifting Democratic New Britain from the 5th to the 1st.

Bristol, Torrington, Colebrook, Winchester, Hartland, Barkhamsted and New Hartford would have shifted from the 1st to the 5th.

All five seats — slow population growth cost a seat in 2001 — are now held by Democrats, meaning there is little downside for the GOP to roll the dice by giving the Supreme Court a shot at drawing new congressional districts.

Democrats had proposed a map that made minimal changes from 2001 to balance population in the districts. They say the map is politically fair, since Republicans won three of five seats in 2002 and 2004.

“If you listen to the Democrats, they would have you believe you just adjust for population changes and call it a day,” Cafero said.

Republicans offered a version that eliminates the oddly drawn borders required in 2001 to craft a 5th Congressional District that provided a level playing field for two incumbents forced to compete for one seat, Democrat James Maloney of Danbury and Republican Nancy Johnson of New Britain.

The original GOP map would have greatly diminished the re-election chances of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, by shifting heavily Democratic Bridgeport, crucial to Himes’ victory in 2008 and re-election in 2010, to the 3rd District.

In their final version, the Republicans gave up on major changes in the 4th District, focusing on the open seat in the 5th, where one of the Democratic candidates is House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden. Donovan was on the commission until Nov. 30, when he gave up his seat to Sharkey.

Last week, Williams called all the Republican versions “radical.”

But Rep. Arthur O’Neil, R-Southbury, the only member on redistricting panels this year and in 2001, said, “The radical change was 10 years ago, and it was forced on us by having to accommodate two incumbents after losing a seat.”