Colorado Supreme Court hears oral arguments in challenges to Colorado Reapportionment Commission legislative district maps

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of eleven challenges to the state legislative district maps that were approved by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission and submitted for review in early October this morning in the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Colorado Capitol.

Many of the challenges (from across the state) arose in response to the eleventh-hour introduction of an entirely new set of maps by the commission’s sole unaffiliated member (and chair) Mario Carrera – the maps that were, in the end, approved – after earlier maps had been subjected to multiple rounds of public comment and scrutiny (beginning with meetings in Denver from 31 May to 25 July, followed by meetings around the state throughout August, and a final commission meeting on 12 September.

Although the specific examples varied somewhat, attorneys for the challengers (a variety of county government officials, from around the state) consistently cited the failure of the Commission maps to meet the constitutional criteria, particularly the requirement to maintain county integrity and allocate “whole” districts within counties Colorado Constitution Article V, Section 47(2), except as necessary to meet the equal population requirements of Colorado Constitution Article V, Section 46.

Some examples:

  • Only 43 single-county districts were formed (out of 47 possible); of the 11 most populous counties, 4 lacked full representation “whole districts.”
  • Colorado Springs, qualifying for 5.38 House seats, was instead split into 8 districts (the total number of districts for which El Paso County qualified as a whole), “fracturing” the city’s representation while failing to minimize municipal splits.
  • Weld County qualified for 3.27 House districts, but was assigned only 2 “whole” districts
  • Arapahoe County qualified for 3.98 senate districts but failed to receive 4 whole districts (while in 2002, the court rejected maps failing to assign 4 “whole” districts to Arapahoe when the county qualified for 3.87)
  • Jefferson County, qualifying for 7 House districts, was assigned only 6 “whole” districts with the remaining 66,000 population placed into 2 ‘split’ districts

Attorneys for the various parties also challenged the “ripple effects” of attempting to preserve a “community of interest” for Aurora and creating “competitive” districts forcing further county splits.  The concept of “competitiveness” was frequently criticized, as an “extra finger on the scale” that is “not defined in law or the Constitution” and therefore an “illegitimate non-constitutional criterion put ahead of [actual] constitutional criteria” (particularly Article V, Section 47(2), county integrity).

An additional objection raised against the commission’s maps was the last-minute nature of the introduction and approval of the final maps without any opportunity for public input and/or comment (the commission’s chair, Mario Carrera, introduced “his” maps on Wednesday September 14th before the commission vote on Monday September 19th) citing “competitiveness” as a primary objective.

The Commission’s attorney argued that although county integrity was a high priority, “other factors may be taken into consideration” at the “discretion” of the commission.  He argued that the commission’s “discretion” is sufficient to “allow a break with the mathematical requirement to grant “whole” districts to counties.  In particular, he stressed “implications” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) as a U.S. constitutional requirement that “supercedes” Colorado state constitutional requirements, even absent a judicial finding or documented evidence that VRA violations had occurred.  (“Supposition” or “good-faith” inference of potential VRA violations was argued to be sufficient).

Several questions asked by the Colorado Supreme Court justices may have been the most interesting indicators of how the court might rule in the case (either accepting the maps as submitted, or remanding the maps back to the commission with instructions for remedying deficiencies).

  • Chief Justice Bender asked only one question of note (Justice Rice asked none at all) – regarding the last-minute introduction & approval of the maps , without public comment.
    • (Answer: “no process mandated to require public testimony after maps adopted.”)
  • Justice Eid followed up on that point – twice noting that the maps received “no public input” and the public was provided “no opportunity for comment”
    • (Answer: “no process called for,” “opportunity to comment throughout total process”)
  • Justice Hobbs asked several questions about where ethnic “community of interest” criteria (Article V, Section 47(3)) fall in order of precedence in relation to other state and federal constitutional criteria (along with a number of short “definition”-type questions)
  • Justice Coats asked several questions about the conditions under which some criteria might be set aside or supercede others – such as
    • Is “where it’s necessary” the only basis to break county integrity?
    • How do we construe the Constitution to allow the commission “discretion” to break county integrity?
    • Is it necessary to have a Voting Rights Act violation in order to split counties?
    • Is a violation of U.S. law necessary to trump the Colorado constitutional requirement for county integrity?  (Noting: “this seems to be fundamental”)
    • Is the commission able to not follow the Colorado Constitution if it ‘suspects’ VRA violations?
    • Is there anything in prior decisions (esp. 1992) showing justification for splitting counties that did not have to be split?

Perhaps most interesting, from a court-watcher’s perspective (and because of the lack of prior rulings on which to rely for context) were the questions posed by Justice Marquez, the Colorado Supreme Court’s newest justice (the most-recently appointed justice, Brian Boatright, has not yet fully joined the court, and was absent from today’s hearings).  Justice Marquez asked several astute and penetrating questions, indicating on several occasions that she was “troubled” by the commission’s arguments:

  • “What constitutes an adequate explanation” for violating county integrity?
  • Where in that list [of constitutional criteria] does “competitiveness” play a role?
    • (Answer: Court is entitled to take into account other factors, including “competitiveness” – not arguing that it trumps other criteria)
      • (Marquez): “Competitiveness” can’t trump “less drastic” alternative
  • Do other criteria trump county integrity “if Voting Rights Acts concerns are active?”
    • (Answer: Yes – understanding that this isn’t part of constitutional hierarchy – but the commission membership being “diverse” afforded more “insight”)
  • Questioning the argument that Voting Rights Act concerns take priority (based on 1992 case precedent), Marquez noted that in 1992, those issues were “hotly contested” and that the commission was attempting to resolve disputed issues – but in 2011, “no such disputed issues” exist outside San Luis valley
    • Marquez noted “the only way the commission’s argument stands is if VRA issues exist in order to trump Article V, Section 47(2)” – without such violations, no legal grounds exist to trump that constitutional requirement”

Quo Vadis?

Although “reading the tea leaves” in such a complex and highly political case is fraught with danger, based on the arguments presented (both orally today and in previous written statements by both sides), questions posed by the Colorado Supreme Court justices, and in light of relevant case law precedent and Colorado Constitutional requirements (see below), Clear The Bench Colorado will hazard a guess on the outcome:

  • CTBC predicts that the Colorado Supreme Court will not accept the Colorado Reapportionment Commission’s state legislative district maps as submitted, and will remand the maps back to the commission with instructions to remedy deficiencies (and will do so before Thanksgiving), most likely on a 4-2 vote.

Any takers?

Colorado Constitutional Requirements:

  • Equal population (with no more than 5% deviation;  ideal district size – Senate: 143, 691; House: 77,372) (Colorado Constitution Article V, Section 46)
  • Counties cannot be split unless necessary to achieve equal population between districts

Except when necessary to meet the equal population requirements of section 46, no part of one county shall be added to all or part of another county in forming districts.  Article V, Section 47(2)

  • Municipalities may not be split unless necessary to achieve equal population between districts (Article V, Section 47(2))
  • Districts must be as compact and contiguous as possible, and consist of whole precincts

(1) Each district shall be as compact in area as possible and the aggregate linear distance of all district boundaries shall be as short as possible. Each district shall consist of contiguous whole general election precincts. Districts of the same house shall not overlap. (Article V, Section 47(1))

  • Finally, communities of interest – ethnic, economic, cultural, demographic, trade area and geographic – are to be preserved whenever possible

(3) Consistent with the provisions of this section and section 46 of this article, communities of interest, including ethnic, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic, and demographic factors, shall be preserved within a single district wherever possible. (Article V, Section 47(3))

Note that per a previous Colorado Supreme Court ruling (In re: Reapportionment of the Colorado General Assembly), these criteria are listed in order of priority – i.e. there’s a hierarchy of constitutional criteria which must be satisfied in order for legislative districts to pass constitutional review.

Additional references:

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

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