August 3, 2011 - 3:44 pm
Saying he wanted to "remove politics from this process," a state district judge on Wednesday named a three-member panel with no politicians to draw Nevada’s new electoral maps for the first time in state history.
The "special masters" panel includes Alan Glover, the Carson City clerk-recorder, Las Vegas attorney Thomas Sheets and Robert Erickson, a retired research director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau who helped with past rounds of redistricting dating to 1981.
Judge James Russell also said he would decide the legal issues first before giving the panel the job of outlining Nevada’s 42 legislative and four congressional districts, including one the state won because its population grew to 2.7 million people in the latest U.S. census.
The most controversial legal and political question is whether Hispanics merit a congressional district with a majority Latino population. He set a Sept. 19 hearing to decide that issue and others such as how to consider where incumbents live and what the starting point will be for drawing the new maps.
Once those legal and political issues are decided — perhaps by the Nevada Supreme Court — drawing the new maps could take as little as a week or two, members of the panel said.
"As soon as they settle the legal questions, this will give us a road map to follow, and we can go from there," Glover said in an interview. "Technically, it could be done in a couple of weeks."
Erickson, who helped the public use computers to draw hypothetical maps in Las Vegas for the Legislative Counsel Bureau this past session, said he was looking forward to the task. He retired in 2004 but has been called back each biennial session to work and splits his time between Carson City and Las Vegas.
"I’m a geographer by training, and I really know the state, so this is going to be great," Erickson said. "I love maps. I’m not intimidated by the mapping. I’m kind of excited about it."
As for politics, Glover served in the Nevada Legislature as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party four or five years ago so he could vote in a GOP primary.
In 1981, he led the Assembly committee that handled redistricting when Nevada won a 2nd congressional seat because of population growth. Another spurt won the state a 3rd district in 2001.
Erickson said he has been a registered nonpartisan in Nevada for as long as he can remember after moving to the state in 1973. He worked for state government for two dozens years.
"My wife thinks I used to be a Republican. I think I used to be a Democrat," Erickson joked. "We don’t really know. I would hope this is going to be a technical process, putting these districts together."
Glover and Erickson were both recommended for the panel by Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat. The judge rejected his political suggestions for the panel, including former U.S. senator and governor Richard Bryan, a Democrat, and former state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
The judge also ignored all the panel suggestions by both political parties, which filed the lawsuits that put redistricting in the courts after GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed two Democratic plans.
Russell, on his own, selected Sheets, the Las Vegas attorney who was chairman of the Nevada Tax Commission for six years until 2009. He adds a Southern Nevada element to the panel.
Sheets, a registered Democrat, has received his primary appointments to state panels from former Republican governors, including the late Kenny Guinn and Jim Gibbons. In the early 2000s, Sheets served on the Nevada Ethics Commission with Russell.
Sheets said he has been a Democrat all of his adult life partly because his father was a union steward and worked for tire plants in Ohio, where he was raised. After coming to Nevada in 1981, Sheets served as senior general counsel for Southwest Gas Corp. for nearly 25 years.
"When I told my son about the special masters appointment, he said you’re just the right guy because you’re the best Republicrat that I know," Sheets said. "I’ve been a pretty apolitical guy."
Sheets noted that after the judge decides the legal issues, the special panel will hold as many as three public hearings to listen to concerns from voters and community interest groups.
"We need to listen to the people and their reactions in an open process," he said. "And we need to sit down and do our business in a non-bias, nonpartisan fashion. I regard this as an extraordinary honor."
Russell said he expected criticism.
"It was and is the intent of the court to attempt to remove politics from this process to the extent possible," Russell wrote in his order. "The court is not naive and understands that no matter who is appointed as special master, there will be criticism and comments, whether justified or not."
Attorneys for both the Republican and Democratic parties had asked the judge to determine whether the Voting Rights Act requires the state to draw one congressional district with a majority of Hispanics — now 26 percent of Nevada’s population — so they have a better chance to elect a Latino representative.
GOP officials think the law calls for giving the minority group that right. Democrats argue it’s a violation of the act to determine district outlines based primarily on ethnicity.
What’s at stake is which political party controls the four U.S. House seats. If Hispanics get their own district, it will be in Clark County and heavily Democratic. That would leave one other Democratic-friendly district and a Republican- friendly district in Southern Nevada.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.Judge James Russell order on redistricting in Nevada