A politically active pastor on Wednesday filed a lawsuit challenging a proposed constitutional amendment initiative petition that would take the power of once-a-decade redistricting away from the Legislature and turn it over to an independent commission.
The Rev. Leonard Jackson, associate pastor of the First A.M.E. Church in North Las Vegas and executive director of the Faith Organizing Alliance, challenged the initiative, filed earlier this month by the Fair Maps PAC and backed by the League of Women Voters of Nevada.
The lawsuit says the description that must by law appear on every page of the petition is misleading and inaccurate.
“Every time an effort is made to level the playing field and bring equality to bear, there will be opposition from those that benefit from the status quo. This lawsuit is no different,” Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada, said in a statement. “The League of Women voters is committed to a fair, transparent, independent process when it comes to drawing our districts.”
But Kevin Benson, the Carson City attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Jackson, said voters would be misled by the petition as written.
“The question here is, does it do what it tells the voters it does? And I think it does not,” Benson said. “Whatever your good intentions are, this petition doesn’t do it.”
The initiative would create a seven-member commission, with four members appointed by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Legislature, and three others chosen by the first four appointees. It would ban lobbyists, candidates for partisan offices, political party officers, paid political consultants, PAC employees and most state employees and members of their immediate families from serving.
The group would be charged with drawing political maps for the Legislature and members of Congress that comply with election laws, provide equal opportunities for minorities to participate in politics and keep communities of interest together, as well as “not unduly advantage or disadvantage a political party.” Districts would also have to be competitive between the parties, although that consideration is last on the list of factors that have to be satisfied.
The lawsuit says the petition’s description is misleading, because four of the seven members would be appointed by partisan state legislative leaders. In addition, the petition doesn’t require the Legislature to fund the commission, or say how much money it should get. As a result, it will be dependent on the Legislature for its funding.
In other states, members of independent redistricting commissions are chosen from pools of potential members or by retired judges, to maintain independence from state legislatures. And funding in other states is specified in the law, the lawsuit says.
Drawing your own district?
And while the measure bans partisan elected officials from serving, it doesn’t prevent a member of the commission from running for office immediately after serving. In other states, members must wait for a specified period of time before running. “This reduces the incentive for commissioners to draw maps that would favor their own political ambitions,” the lawsuit says.
Finally, the lawsuit says the petition fails to properly inform voters of the costs of the commission. Not only will the commission have to spend money on staff, legal advice and materials to oversee redistricting, but if the measure gets the required signatures and goes to the ballot in 2020 and 2022, it would require redrawing district boundaries in 2023. That’s just two years after the Legislature is constitutionally required to draw maps in 2021.
“Thus the state will potentially spend twice the resources (or more) as it would normally on redistricting efforts in the three-year period following the 2020 census,” the lawsuit reads.
To qualify, supporters must gather 97,598 valid signatures by June 16. If they’re successful, the measure will go on the ballot in 2020 and 2022, and take effect in 2023.
If Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson agrees with the lawsuit, he could order the description rewritten. If not, Benson could file an appeal with the state Supreme Court, again seeking a rewrite. If either court orders edits to the description, any signatures gathered with the existing language would have to be thrown out and organizers would have to start from scratch with the new wording.
The debate comes against a highly partisan backdrop, both nationally and locally. The U.S. Supreme Court in July held that partisan gerrymandering is a matter for legislatures, not courts to decide. The ruling was widely seen as allowing partisanship in drawing political lines.
And, for the first time in at least 20 years in Nevada, the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. If the party retains its majority in the 2020 elections, it could pass a redistricting plan — even a gerrymandered one — with a simple majority and have it signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.