CARSON CITY -- A district judge decided Wednesday that a redistricting panel he appointed -- and not he -- first must decide whether some Nevada election districts should have majority Hispanic populations.
After a three-hour hearing, Judge James T. Russell ordered the panel of three special masters to prepare a report on whether white bloc voting has so diluted the political clout of Hispanics that majority Hispanic population districts must be created.
If they find that has occurred, then the judge could order them to create majority Hispanic districts. He wants to approve a redistricting plan by Nov. 16.
The issue is important to both major political parties, which tout principles of fair representation but also see a chance to gain power in Congress and the Legislature. Such battles occur every 10 years when the new U.S. census numbers are announced.
Hispanics make up 26.5 percent of the state population, an 81 percent increase since the 2000 census, but no Nevada Hispanic person ever has been elected to Congress. Redistricting fell to Russell after Gov. Brian Sandoval twice vetoed Democrat-passed plans during the 2011 session and lawsuits were filed by both parties.
During Wednesday's hearing before Russell, Democrat lawyer Marc Elias argued against Hispanic majority districts. He said that "Nevada is no Mississippi" and that no white voting bloc has prevented Hispanics from being elected to office.
He pointed to the November election of Republican Sandoval as the first Hispanic governor and the re-election of Democrat and Hispanic Catherine Cortez Masto as attorney general.
Elias argued that the federal Voting Rights Act does not require the establishment of election districts where Hispanics are in the majority unless it can be shown white voters are biased and won't support Hispanic candidates.
He noted that Bob Coffin, whose mother is Hispanic, was elected in the spring to the Las Vegas City Council and that Hispanic Richard Carrillo was elected to the Assembly in November in a largely non-Hispanic district.
But Mark Braden, a Republican lawyer with past experience in redistricting cases, argued Democrats deliberately want to avoid creating a Hispanic congressional district.
He said instead they want to create three congressional districts centered in Clark County and divided in a way to elect Democrats and not necessarily Hispanics.
"The community is there," said Braden about the possibility of creating a Hispanic congressional district. "I don't know much about Las Vegas, but after a half hour of driving around downtown, you know where it is."
Russell ruled from the bench Wednesday that he wants the panel to hold public hearings on Oct. 10 in Las Vegas and Oct. 11 in Carson City to allow Nevadans to discuss how they want to draw election districts. Then he wants the panel to meet in private and draw up election district maps by Oct. 21. He will release the maps to the public.
"We have a short time period," Russell said. "This is a big job."
The judge, the son of former Republican Gov. Charles Russell, said he will hold a court hearing on Nov. 15 or 16 at which he will adopt the redistricting maps or send them back to the panel for changes.
His approval would give lawyers time to appeal to the state Supreme Court if they think the redistricting plan approved by Russell is unconstitutional. Democrats have said they will appeal any plan that favors Hispanic majority districts.
Time is a priority because redistricting must be in place by March, when candidates file for congressional, legislative and other seats on the 2012 election ballot.
In August, Russell named Las Vegas lawyer Thomas Sheets, Carson City Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover and former Legislative Counsel Bureau research analyst Bob Erickson to the redistricting panel. They all attended the Wednesday hearing.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.