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Judge tweaks, approves Nevada redistricting maps

CARSON CITY — After making five minor boundary changes sought by Democratic and Republican lawyers, District Judge James T. Russell approved maps Thursday that create new election districts for Nevada’s four congressional, 21 state Senate and 42 Assembly districts.

The maps will stand unless party lawyers or other affected people appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Republican lawyer Mark Hutchison and Democratic lawyer Marc Elias said they first must review the changes made by the judge before deciding whether to appeal.

The maps were changed to reflect concerns from both parties, and some participants in the process suggested in court that the proposed boundaries would survive intact for the 2012 election.

But legislators representing rural areas said they fear they will lose political power because their districts will be expanded to include parts of the more populous Clark County. They said they might challenge the maps to the Nevada Supreme Court.

RURAL LAWSUITS POSSIBLE

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, expects rural Nevada political leaders will challenge Russell’s decision because the maps would create a state Senate District 19 that runs more than 500 miles from Jackpot to Primm. He intends to leave the Assembly and run for this state Senate seat.

He questioned how a state senator could represent the interests of Nevadans from sparsely populated rural counties, with the interests of constituents from Clark County, the largest in the state.

As an example, he noted rural Nevadans largely oppose the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s effort to take water from eastern Nevada while Clark County residents favor water importation.

"At this point, it is not about me," Goicoechea said. "I don’t disagree with the judge that a piece of the district has to be in Clark County. But there have been rumblings in the cow counties about some kind of lawsuit."

During a 75-minute hearing in his court, Russell addressed the state Senate District 19 concern, noting he received objection letters from Eureka County, former Assemblyman John Carpenter, current Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, and others.

"There is no way (to pacify) everyone," said Russell, contending that because of population requirements, some of the district must be in Clark County.

Each state Senate district must have around 130,000 people, and Russell said the special masters’ plan calls for 16 percent of the district population to be in Clark County. Even with that amount, Republicans have a 19 percentage point registration advantage.

He added that the special masters’ map has fewer Clark County residents in the district than the two maps approved by the Democrats during the legislative session and the one proposed by Republican legislators.

ANOTHER RURAL PROBLEM

On the other hand, Russell did not address the special masters’ work on Assembly District 18, where two in­cumbents, Assemblyman Steven Brooks, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, must face each other.

The Republican-Democrat breakdown in the newly drawn district is almost 50-50. Hardy now represents District 20, which has an 18 percentage point registered voter advantage for Republicans.

Hardy does not expect to file a lawsuit over the decision to put him in a district with Brooks, but people in Overton, Mesquite and other rural Clark County areas could, he said.

"I think I have a good chance of winning the race now, but in the future, the candidate from the urban communities will always win," Hardy said.

Russell had spoken of the special masters preserving "communities of interest," but having North Las Vegas and part of Las Vegas in a district with Mesquite and Moapa Valley is contrary to what the judge wanted, Hardy said.

HISPANIC ISSUE DISSOLVED?

Gov. Brian Sandoval last spring vetoed two Democrat-passed redistricting plans, largely on the grounds that they did not create a Hispanic-majority congressional district or 12 Hispanic-majority legislative districts.

When legislators adjourned June 7 without an agreement, redistricting fell into Russell’s court after both parties filed lawsuits.

Russell said Thursday he accepted the special masters’ analysis that majority-Hispanic districts were not needed, largely because Nevada does not have a history of white voters refusing to back Hispanic candidates.

No objections were expressed Thursday by Republican lawyers on his decision.

Under the redrawn maps, the 1st Congressional District will have a 43 percent Hispanic population.

Even if there are no appeals filed with the state Supreme Court, justices will have to jump into the issue.

Because of a challenge by Secretary of State Ross Miller, the court must decide whether the maps — approved by the panel of Las Vegas lawyer Thomas Sheets, Carson City Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover and retired Legislative Counsel Bureau research director Bob Erickson and approved by the judge — will stand.

Justices will hold a hearing on Nov. 14 to decide whether the courts, the panel or the Legislature itself should handle redistricting.

Justices noted that under the state constitution, it is the "duty" of the Legislature to redistrict after the release of every federal census.

Because of population changes shown by the census, they must create new districts that are nearly the same in population.

While the work of the special masters is finished, Russell still must bill the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee for the cost of their time.

He said Sheets and Erickson will be paid $225 an hour, while Glover, an elected official, can accept no extra pay. He gave each man a plaque for his contributions.

The total pay for the special masters will be about $50,000, which Russell said is far less than the $250,000 cost if the Legislature had gone into special session and worked two weeks on redistricting.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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