Lawyers for both the Republican and Democratic parties on Wednesday asked a state judge to rule first on whether Hispanics merit a majority Latino congressional district in Nevada before he appoints a special panel to draw new maps for U.S. House and legislative seats.
Republicans believe the Voting Rights Act requires the state to shape one district in Southern Nevada around its heavy Hispanic population, now 26 percent of the state. Nevada is getting a fourth House seat because its total population grew to 2.7 million in the 2010 U.S. Census.
Democrats, however, argue that packing Latinos into one congressional district will dilute their voting power across the rest of the state, which could be considered a violation of the federal act.
Despite the opposing views, the two sides agreed that a court-appointed panel can't begin to draw the new maps until it has a legal ruling from the judge on whether to form a Hispanic majority district.
"The proper application of the Voting Rights Act will likely be the most important legal question of this entire process," lawyers for the Republicans said in court papers filed Wednesday.
The Democrats agreed, arguing that it's vital to decide the Latino issue first.
"The court's answer to this question will then inform whether the Legislature's map or the existing districts should be the starting point for the court's line-drawing task," the Democratic lawyers said.
The Democratic-led Legislature approved two sets of maps. Both were vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, the state's first Hispanic governor. He said they violated the Voting Rights Act because the maps, which got no GOP support, didn't set aside a Latino majority congressional district.
The GOP lawyers argued that a court-ordered panel should reject the Legislature's vetoed maps and instead start with the current districts in place since 2001 from the last round of redistricting.
The legal arguments were filed with District Judge James Russell in Carson City, who said he plans to appoint a special masters panel to draw the new electoral maps for Nevada.
Anticipating a political impasse, the Democratic Party had filed a lawsuit challenging redistricting even before the Legislature began work on new maps. Republicans then filed suit as well. Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, was named as the defendant because he's the top election official.
The Nevada attorney general's office also filed legal papers Wednesday on behalf of Miller but stayed away from the Latino question. Instead, the attorney general's office reminded the judge the Legislature has a "mandatory duty" to reapportion the population and draw new electoral districts.
"A successful special session would moot this litigation," the attorney general's office said, making an argument for the judge to throw the issue back to the Legislature instead of a special panel.
Sandoval already has rejected calling a special legislative session to handle redistricting.
Judge Russell had set Wednesday as a deadline for all parties in the lawsuit to suggest members for the special panel he plans to appoint, which could include up to half a dozen people.
Miller recommended nine people, including politicians such as former Democratic U.S. Sen. and Gov. Richard Bryan, former state Sen. Terry Care, a Democrat, and former state Sen. Bill Raggio, a Republican, as well as experts on redistricting and community leaders.
The Democrats also had a couple of former politicians on their list of 13 recommendations, including Bryan and former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. The rest were political scientists, historians and demographic experts from Nevada and outside the state.
The Republican lawyers said they thought the judge wanted to keep politics out of the process so they didn't propose any former politicians. Instead the GOP list of eight recommendations from Nevada and out of state included nationally recognized experts in government, redistricting, elections and law.
It's unclear how quickly Russell will act on whether to hold hearings and rule on the Hispanic voting rights issue before selecting people to serve on the redistricting panel.
Sorting out all the legal and political issues could take months but must be decided before March of next year when candidates can begin filing for political office.
Congressional candidates don't have to live in districts they represent, and several Democratic candidates have announced House runs or are preparing campaigns. But Nevada's 21 state senators and 42 members of the Assembly must live in their districts and need to know the outlines.
Review-Journal writer Doug McMurdo contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.