Court favors Democrats in redistricting instructions

The Connecticut Supreme Court has directed its special master on redistricting, Professor Nathaniel Persily of Columbia, to make minimal changes as he draws new lines for the state’s five U.S. House districts, echoing arguments made by Democrats.

“In developing the plan,” the court said in its new order, “the Special Master shall modify the existing congressional districts only to the extent reasonably required to comply with the following applicable legal requirements…”

Those requirements are that the districts be equal in population, consist of contiguous territory and meet “other applicable provisions of the Voting Rights Act and federal law.”

Democratic CD map

The Democratic map made minimal changes, leaving the awkward border of the 5th (red) and 1st (blue).

While the reference to “other applicable provisions” leaves the door open for other changes, the court pointedly ignored a GOP-suggested condition that would require significant changes to the current map: “geographic compactness.”

The court also made no direct mention of “political fairness.” In fact, it explicitly prohibited Persily from considering how the map favors or disfavors Democrats or Republicans.

“In fashioning his plan,” the court said, “the Special Master shall not consider either the residency of incumbents or potential candidates or other political data, such as party registration statistics or election returns.”

A spokesman for Democrats on the bipartisan Reapportionment Commission says Democrats had no comment, but House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, the panel’s GOP co-chairman, said he believes the court’s instructions give Persily flexibility to make significant changes, even with the emphasis on using the existing map.

Cafero said he believes some of the changes suggested by the Republicans are “reasonably required” to meet all the legal requirements of drawing a new map.

“I don’t think the court would put themselves, the various parties, the state through the time and, most importantly, the expense of hiring attorneys, filing briefs, making arguments and hiring a special master of the caliber of Nate Persily all to tell him go into the back room with a calculator and just move 23,000 people” to equalize the districts’ population, he said.

Democrats are proposing minimal changes in the existing map, arguing that it was fairly drawn 10 years ago by a bipartisan legislative commission. As such, they said, the court should give deference and use the map, with the minimal changes necessary to equalize the districts by population.

“The special master should use the current district lines as a baseline and shall adjust those lines only to the extent necessary to comply with those constitutional and statutory requirements,” Aaron Bayer, the Democrats’ lawyer, wrote in his brief.

GOP final CD map

The GOP map creates a ‘compact’ 1st and 5th, undoing the ‘claw’ created in 2001.

Ross Garber, the lawyer for the Republicans, urged the court to think more broadly by directing the special master to consider factors such as making the new districts politically fair and geographically compact, with an eye toward grouping municipalities that have a “community of interest.”

Drawing the new map is far from an academic exercise: The map suggested by the GOP would make the 5th Congressional District, the only open seat in Connecticut next year, more amenable to Republicans, while the status quo favors Democrats, who now hold all five U.S. House seats.

The court is accepting proposed congressional maps and supporting data until noon Friday, and Persily will conduct a public hearing Monday at noon in the Legislative Office Building.

Persily must file his plan with the court no later than Jan. 27.

Under the state constitution, the state Supreme Court took over congressional redistricting after the commission failed to produce a new map by Nov. 30. The court granted the commission an extension until Dec 21, but the legislators on the panel declared a deadlock.

In taking over responsibility for the map, the court invited the commission to continue its work on what the court says is a legislative function. But Democrats declined to respond to the Republicans’ last map, which made changes in the awkwardly drawn border between the 1st and 5th districts.

That border is  the result of a bipartisan gerrymander in 2001 to accommodate two incumbents, Democrat James Maloney and Republican Nancy Johnson, who both landed in the 5th after the state lost a House seat.

“That is why the district is shaped the way it is,” Garber told the court last week. “That is why that district is a gerrymander.”

Republicans say their map makes geographic sense, while also making the 5th District — an open seat in 2012 — less Democratic by stripping it of heavily Democratic New Britain.

Bayer responded that the 2001 map, even if oddly drawn, was the product of a bipartisan legislative commission, and with minor modifications it still can meet constitutional muster.

“It was a valid process,” Bayer said.