The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed Thursday to give the legislature’s Reapportionment Commission until noon on Dec. 21 to produce a congressional district map before assigning the task to a court-appointed special master.
The bipartisan commission can only act under court supervision since missing a constitutional deadline of Nov. 30, a delay that a lawyer for the commission attributed to the pandemic, not a deadlock.
“Your honor, I’m pleased to report to this court that the commission is not at an impasse,” Assistant Attorney General Maura Murphy Osborne told Chief Justice Richard Robinson in a status conference conducted by video conferencing.
Democrats and Republicans are to exchange proposed congressional maps for the first time Friday, but legislative leaders on the commission said in interviews that they already had agreed on a foundational principle of political neutrality.
The map would be drawn to make the minimal changes necessary to equalize the population of the five districts without tilting any district to the advantage or disadvantage of the incumbents, all Democrats.
“I would not be surprised if we were in a very, very good spot by early next week to finalize this thing,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “I suspect that when we exchange maps, it will further cement the idea we’re very, very close.”
The court made clear it expects to see progress. In addition to the extension to Dec. 21, the court essentially set an earlier deadline, requiring the commission to produce a progress report and offer names of three potential special masters by 5 p.m. on Dec. 15.
Redistricting is a legislative function in Connecticut under the state constitution, but the state’s highest court becomes responsible for the function after the Nov. 30 deadline.
Robinson acknowledged Thursday that the current justices share a wariness in taking over the task.
“Our case law reflects that this court is an institution particularly ill-suited to undertake this role. We are hopeful that the commission will complete its work,” Robinson said. “You may, however, rest assured that we will do our job if the commission cannot come to an agreement.”
He also warned that any political considerations shared by the commission members would not necessarily interest the court.
“I also want to make it crystal clear: In the event that we are required to take on this task, the court is completely uninterested in the political results of the reapportionment,” Robinson said.
Six of the seven justices participated in the status conference with Murphy Osborne, each asking questions. One of the seven, Justice Christine E. Keller, has recused herself. Her son is Matt Ritter.
The justices said they were encouraged by Murphy Osborne’s assurance there was no impasse, but they were inclined to make an initial move, at least, towards lining up a special master.
“I understand you’re hopeful,” said Justice Andrew McDonald, a former lawmaker. “I think we’re all hopeful. But, you know, it’s better to plan for the worst and then be surprised.”
The chief justice shared McDonald’s concern, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has taught him to temper hopes for easy resolutions of challenges to the court.
“I think we’re in sort of an unusual position that we’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had a lot of issues come up in the last couple of years, and now we have this,” Robinson said. “And hope is just not a plan of action.”
The Reapportionment Commission unanimously approved maps for the 36 state Senate and 151 state House districts last month but made no effort to produce a congressional map by the deadline.
The delivery of the granular, block-by-block census data necessary to draw the district maps was delayed by the pandemic, though some other states have completed their maps.
“We have no impasse, because we didn’t start negotiations,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, a commission member.
Ten years ago, Democrats and Republicans agreed on General Assembly districts, then deadlocked over the congressional map. The GOP’s members pushed for dramatic changes that would have advantaged Republicans in two districts.
A special master was appointed on Dec. 30, 2011 and recommended a new map that was adopted by the court on Feb. 12, 2012, three days before the constitutional deadline for the justices.
The Republican map proposed in 2011 would have moved Bridgeport, the state’s largest and overwhelmingly Democratic city, from the 4th District into the 3rd District with New Haven, another Democratic stronghold. It also would have moved New Britain from the 5th into the 1st.
The moves would have made the 4th and the 5th more competitive for Republicans.
Candelora said Republicans have no ambitions about significantly tilting one district their way by drawing new lines.
That does not mean he has given up on smoothing out the awkward shape of the 5th District, which was drawn after Connecticut lost one of its six congressional seats in 2001 and two incumbents had to face off.
“We should have those conversations — and we probably will,” Candelora said, but he acknowledged, “I think it will be taken off the table pretty quickly.”
The map drawn 20 years ago to set up a fair fight between two incumbents, a Democrat from Danbury and a Republican from New Britain, underwent only modest revisions in 2011 at the direction of the court.
“In developing the plan,” the court said in its order then, “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 were that the districts be equal in population, consist of contiguous territory and meet “other applicable provisions of the Voting Rights Act and federal law.”
The underlying political rationale was that the 2001 map was deemed fair and should serve as the basis for the 2011 version.
The map yielded Republican wins in three of the five congressional districts in 2002 and 2004, but Democrats have won all five seats in every election since 2008.
The informal agreement, of course, does not ensure the current balance of power will persist.
Political and population trends that are making the 2nd District of eastern Connecticut more Republican and already have transformed the 4th District of lower Fairfield County from a Republican-leaning swing district to a Democratic stronghold.