The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered efforts to make federal elections more competitive, upholding an independent commission set up by Arizona voters to draw congressional districts.
The 5-4 ruling rejected contentions that the Arizona law, approved in a 2000 ballot initiative, strips state lawmakers of power reserved to them by the U.S. Constitution.
The decision opens a new path for efforts to limit gerrymandering -- the practice of drawing irregular district lines to gain a political advantage. The Supreme Court has previously refused to put constitutional limits on partisan districts.
“Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle of republican government, namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.
The ruling is a setback to Arizona Republicans, who had hoped to redraw that state’s district map and potentially capture two more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the same time, the decision buttressed a similar commission in California and may prevent Democrats from shifting district lines there.
Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The ruling applies only to congressional redistricting and doesn’t affect the Arizona commission’s role in drawing state legislative maps.
Arizona’s Republican officials argued that the commission violates the Constitution’s elections clause. That provision says the rules governing congressional elections are to be set in each state by “the legislature thereof” unless superseded by Congress.
A divided three-judge panel had backed the commission, saying past Supreme Court decisions established that the word “legislature” encompasses states’ entire lawmaking process, including ballot initiatives.
The lines drawn by the Arizona commission for the 2012 election helped Democrats capture five of the nine congressional seats in the state that year. Republicans seized an additional seat in 2014, giving them a 5-4 advantage.
Arizona and California are the only two states that effectively exclude lawmakers from the redistricting process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Eleven other states have commissions that either have more limited roles or that have members appointed by politicians.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is a five-member body whose commissioners come from a list of 25 candidates selected by a separate body that also handles judicial appointments.
Two commissioners are selected from that list by the state legislature’s highest-ranking Republicans, two by the top Democrats and the fifth by the four other panel members. Lawmakers themselves are barred from serving on the commission.
The panel’s criteria for drawing voting lines include the goal of having politically competitive districts.
Among those who supported the commission at the Supreme Court was Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.
The case is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 13-1314.