Redistricting is the most nakedly political act any politician ever engages in, and it’s never pretty to watch it happen.
The only thing that’s worse is watching it done under the auspices of a court.
But because the 2011 Nevada Legislature failed to pass a redistricting plan that met with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s approval, that may be precisely what happens. Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell met with lawyers for the Republican and Democratic parties last week. He’ll meet again in July to schedule oral arguments.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be so hasty.
Instead of proceeding to a trial on the relative merits of the two (very similar) redistricting plans passed by the Democratically controlled Legislature and vetoed by the Republican governor, Russell should declare the issue not quite ripe for consideration.
He could strongly suggest legislative leaders get together at least one more time to try to resolve their differences and come to an agreement on new maps for congressional and state legislative districts, on the theory that a plan hammered out by the legislative branch after a political proceeding and thereafter approved by the executive will always carry more weight than one handed down by the judicial branch. Then, assuming leaders could work things out, Sandoval could call a one-day special session for the Legislature to pass the plan for his signature.
Why should we expect that Republicans and Democrats would be able to agree now when they couldn’t before? Good question. Russell could tell both sides that if the courts are forced to do the work that the Legislature should rightly have done, they will do so with an eye only toward equity, not politics.
Imagine four congressional districts that start in Southern Nevada, dividing populous Clark County into four slices and then stretching northward like the blades of a fan. Every member of Congress elected from the state would get to represent both urban and rural constituents, both Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada residents, both cowboys and casinos.
No longer would the 2nd Congressional District representative be the only member to require a private plane to conveniently access all parts of his district. Instead, all four Nevada congressional representatives would make the flights to Reno and the drives to places such as Gerlach, Winnemucca, Carlin and Ely.
Sound good, would-be members of Congress?
Imagine a court — perhaps employing a special master rather than starting with maps provided by the political parties — drawing new district lines with respect only to population, and not with deference to where particular lawmakers live or would like to run. In this approach, judges wouldn’t necessarily care if two state senators end up in the same district and are forced to run against each other. They’d only care about making populations as equal as possible, and ensuring federal voting rights laws are followed.
How does that sound, incumbents of the Nevada Assembly and state Senate?
If the courts took that approach, it just might motivate the legislative branch to make a political deal, one in which neither side gets everything it wants, but one that would be a lot better than a plan drawn without any political considerations whatsoever. (And for those who say redistricting should always be done in a non-political fashion, welcome to our reality. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay.)
The alternative is for Russell to preside over a squabbling courtroom in which posturing Republicans pretend to care about Hispanic voting rights in an effort to sweep Democratic voters out of their way, and overreaching Democrats try to defend a plan that pointedly puts Republicans at a calculated disadvantage.
It’s almost a sure bet neither Russell nor the state Supreme Court wants this job. And maybe that will provide some motive for the people who were supposed to do it in the first place.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.