Special master hears pleas on congressional districts

Republicans pushed Monday for a court-appointed special master, Nathaniel Persily, to tear up Connecticut’s congressional map, calling it a gerrymander drawn 10 years ago to accommodate two incumbents forced to compete for one seat.

In the only public hearing before Persily recommends new districts to the state Supreme Court on Jan. 27, Democrats and Republicans continued to clash over how to draw a map that could swing an open 5th Congressional District seat in 2012.

Nathaniel Persily

Nathaniel Persily

The court seems inclined toward treading lightly on what the justices view as “quintessentially a legislative function” — one the justices are forced to address in light of a deadlocked legislative Reapportionment Commission.

The justices have instructed Persily, who has advised other states in similar situations, to modify the existing plan “only to the extent reasonably required” to comply with legal requirements. On Monday, Persiliy gave no inkling of his thinking, nor did he respond to claims or arguments in the one-hour, 50-minute hearing.

Democratic CD map

Democratic map maintains irregular border of 5th (light blue) and 1st (dark purple.)

New GOP map

New GOP map: the 1st (purple) juts into 5th (light blue.)

“I will not be talking all that much. I am here to listen,” Persily said at the outset.

He kept his word. Instructed by the justices to communicate only with them, Persily recoiled before the hearing when a reporter tried to introduce himself.

Testimony Monday was heavily in support of preserving the status quo, with only two GOP commission members, their lawyer and their consultant urging Persily to wholly remake a map that has yielded no Republican victories since 2008.

With an eye towards a district friendlier to Republicans, the GOP urged Persily to undo changes made in 2001 after the loss of a U.S. House seat left two incumbents, Democrat James Maloney and Republican Nancy Johnson, in the 5th District.

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, said the 2001 Reapportionment Commission disregarded nearly all standard redistricting criteria and focused on creating a 5th that was “reasonable and fair” for Maloney and Johnson, not the state.

“I hope that you will consider the very peculiar history,” said O’Neill, the only legislator to serve on both the 2001 and 2011 Reapportionment Commissions.

“The 1st and 5th Districts are bizarrely shaped,” said Ross Garber, the lawyer representing Republicans on the Reapportionment Commission.

“It looks like someone spilled milk on a coffee table,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, the co-chairman of the commission.

Apparently encouraged by the court’s instructions to Persily, no Democrat on the bipartisan commission testified, leaving representation to their lawyer, Aaron Bayer, a former deputy attorney general.

“I’m kind of stunned to hear representatives of the Republican Party run away from the redistricting process in 2001,” Bayer said.

In 2002 and 2004, the existing districts yielded a 3-2 Republican advantage in the five-member U.S. House delegation. Bayer said Connecticut is one of the few states where 60 percent of its districts have been competitive in the past decade.

The 2001 map was the product of a bipartisan political compromise, exactly the process envisioned in the state Constitution, Bayer said. It has no legal defects, so the court is correct in calling for minimal changes, he said.