Members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission listen to… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Francisco and Sacramento -- The California Supreme Court refused Wednesday to intervene in new voting districts drawn by a citizens commission, deciding unanimously to reject two challenges to the boundaries.
The high court considered the legal challenges, brought by Republicans seeking to overturn congressional and state Senate district maps, in a closed session, and the judges did not comment on their reasons for rejecting the lawsuits.
"We're disappointed that the court denied the petition on the Senate districts without a hearing," said Charles H. Bell, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Their lawsuit alleged that some of the boundaries violate state constitutional requirements that districts be compact and contiguous and fail to comply with the federal voting rights law governing minority representation.
California voters took the redistricting task away from the Legislature and created the citizens commission to do it every 10 years, after the census, to adjust for population changes.
The ruling leaves a referendum effort against the Senate maps as the only avenue for GOP interests seeking to undo the work of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The panel's maps for state Assembly and Board of Equalization districts have not been challenged.
Backers of a referendum have until Nov. 13 to gather some 504,000 signatures to place their measure on next year's ballot. If they succeed, the state Supreme Court will once again be required to decide whether to use the commission's districts or appoint special masters to draw new ones until voters can decide for themselves.
State GOP spokesman Mark Standriff said the Republican Party supports the idea of an independent commission to draw California's political lines, but "the process got hijacked by political partisans along the way." A referendum, he said, would "give people a chance to fix the maps."
A similar effort to overturn new congressional districts failed to get very far. But the party's drive against the Senate maps recently got a big boost: a $1-million donation from Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph. He recently gave the money to the California Republican Party, which poured at least $900,000 into the referendum signature-gathering effort this week.
Jeff Green, a spokesman for Joseph, did not say why the insurance executive opposed the Senate districts. Many analysts believe that the districts favor Democrats enough that Republican representation in the upper house could fall below the one-third threshold needed to block tax increases in Sacramento.
This is the second time in recent months that Joseph has opened his checkbook to reshape state politics. Last summer, he contributed $8.1 million to an effort to place an initiative on the 2012 ballot that would allow insurance companies to hike certain fees to customers. Proponents are gathering signatures.
Opponents of the lawsuits and referendum say the commission's maps simply reflect the drop in the percentage of Republicans in California's electorate. According to the California secretary of state, Republicans were 35% of state voters in 2003 but just under 31% in February of this year.
"The Supreme Court has struck a blow against politics as usual by upholding the fair and representative maps" drawn by the citizens panel, commissioner Stan Forbes said in a statement Wednesday.
Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant who has specialized in redistricting, said the court's Wednesday action also has implications for the referendum drive.
"The court just threw out the lawsuits, saying in effect that these plans are legal," he said. "It creates a sense that these plans pass legal muster."
Also on Wednesday, California Common Cause, a proponent of the ballot measures that voters approved last year and in 2008 to create the new redistricting system, filed a complaint with the state's ethics agency against the California Republican Party and one of the referendum advocates, Fairness & Accountability in Redistricting (FAIR).
The complaint alleges that the two violated campaign finance disclosure rules by failing to properly disclose the major financial supporters of the proposed referendum. Representatives of FAIR could not be reached for comment. The GOP's Standriff called the complaint "frivolous" and said the Republican Party had filed amended disclosures that addressed all of its contributions.
The redistricting commission produced new political maps last summer after several months of intensive public testimony. Some minority rights groups, particularly Latinos, complained that the maps did not properly reflect their growth and threatened to sue in federal court. So far, none has.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Jean Merl in Los Angeles and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.