The Oregon Supreme Court has dismissed claims that new state legislative districts passed by Democrats in September were improperly drawn, putting an end to one facet of an ongoing redistricting fight in the state.
In a ruling issued Monday morning, justices ruled challengers had not proven that the new boundaries for the state’s 60 House and 30 Senate districts were crafted with illegal partisan intent, or violated any other rules that lawmakers are supposed to consider.
“This court has long recognized that... constitutional and statutory provisions confer broad discretion on the legislature to devise a reapportionment plan,” Justice Chris Garrett, a former lawmaker who played a role in redistricting in 2011, wrote in the opinion. The court would only go against those plans, he wrote, if it found that lawmakers had not considered proper criteria when drawing maps, or had “made a choice or choices that no reasonable [reapportioning body] would have made.”
Two lawsuits challenging the maps failed on those counts, Garrett wrote. The outcome puts an end to debate about what Oregon’s legislative districts will look like for the next decade, giving lawmakers and would-be lawmakers certainty as they consider running in next year’s elections.
The new legislative maps take effect Jan. 1. An analysis of the plans using the website Dave’s Redistricting suggests they will lead to continued Democratic control of both chambers for the foreseeable future, though it’s not clear the party will maintain the three-fifths supermajorities it currently holds.
The two suits challenging the maps offered markedly different arguments for why they should be changed.
One suit, filed by two Lane County men and supported by a Democratic state representative, sought only to shift a single boundary line that split a section of southeast Eugene from the rest of the city.
Petitioners Gordon Culbertson and David Calderwood argued that carving a piece of the city into a largely rural district unduly separated communities that shared a common interest. And they said that the line had been drawn with illegal political intent, in order to ensure that state Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, was unable to mount a primary challenge to a sitting senator, Eugene Democrat Floyd Prozanski. As a result, the suit said, Wilde now lives in a Republican-leaning district that will be difficult for him to win.
Lawyers for the state, meanwhile, said the disputed boundary became necessary after lawmakers made changes to their initial proposed map to ensure the University of Oregon was not broken into different districts. That change, they noted, came at the urging of Wilde and others who wanted the university to remain wholly within one district.
Garrett and other justices found no reason to find the line lawmakers had arrived at was any better than the change proposed in the court challenge, and they appeared dubious that Wilde was the victim of political retribution, as he and other lawmakers have claimed.
The other challenge to the maps was far broader. Filed by a former Republican state lawmaker and a Lake Oswego attorney, the suit suggested lawmakers had failed to conduct proper process when considering new districts and had enacted an illegally partisan map that should be scrapped altogether.
Justices were unimpressed with those arguments, saying they were “unpersuasive, largely because they rely on debatable and unsubstantiated assumptions about the reasons underlying the Legislative Assembly’s actions.”
Since it ruled challengers to the maps had not proved basic points of their case, the state Supreme Court did not delve into some claims raised by the Oregon Department of Justice that have raised eyebrows in recent weeks.
Perhaps most notably, the DOJ has argued repeatedly in court that, even if lawmakers did pass plans that were illegally gerrymandered under state statute, the court would be powerless to stop it. That argument rests on the notion that the bill passing new political districts, Senate Bill 882, would trump the older statute that outlawed partisan gerrymandering.
“A statute cannot be invalidated on the ground that it violates another statute rather than a constitutional provision,” the DOJ wrote in a court filing earlier this month. “If SB 882 conflicted with ORS 188.010, the former would control as the more recently enacted statute.”
That argument was met with disbelief in some corners when it came to light, but justices did not wind up deciding on its merit Monday.
Though they passed largely along party lines, the state House and Senate districts that will now take effect were the least controversial aspect of a deeply acrimonious redistricting process in September. Lawmakers have battled most intently over how the state will add a sixth U.S. House district -- a decision which could have bearing on which party controls Congress in 2023.
The congressional map passed by Democrats has been flagged as biased by several prominent tools for measuring the fairness of political districts. An ongoing Republican challenge to the congressional map is before a five-judge panel. Judges hinted during oral arguments at a skepticism that the new districts are provably gerrymandered, peppering attorneys for the challengers with questions.
That panel is expected to rule this week. If it dismisses the case, petitioners have the option of appealing to the state Supreme Court.