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Washing up on an island of sanity

The courts, especially the Supreme Court, are said to be an island of sanity, a branch of government intentionally isolated from political passions, ostensibly guided by reason and the law.

And the Nevada Supreme Court seems to be just that when it comes to the thorny matter of redistricting.

By now, most readers know the story: The Democratically controlled 2011 Legislature passed two redistricting plans favorable to Democrats; Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed both. The session ended with the Legislature having failed to complete what the state constitution labels its “mandatory duty:” to draw new political boundaries every 10 years.

Thanks to a lawsuit filed by Democrats even before the session ended, the matter ended up in Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell’s courtroom. Although some (including yours truly) suggested Russell should send the matter back to the Legislature for resolution, he appointed a panel of three special masters to do the work lawmakers and the governor should have finished in June. But, last month, Russell neglected to give those masters guidance on some complicated legal issues, leaving those matters to their discretion.

So Secretary of State Ross Miller asked the Nevada Supreme Court to weigh in and force Russell to make those rulings or do the work itself.

The justices had been silent on redistricting, with the exception of an exchange of letters in which Chief Justice Nancy Saitta asked Russell if he’d be able to finish his work in time for Nevada’s 2012 election cycle to kick off in March. Russell said he could.

But, presented with an opportunity to weigh in on the case officially, the Supreme Court in a unanimous order issued Wednesday asked for an ambitious schedule of briefings and oral arguments over some more basic questions. Those include whether the Legislature has discharged its “mandatory duty,” whether the courts have the authority to take over the redistricting process, how they might go about doing it and whether Russell’s appointment of special masters was proper.

(A footnote contains what must be a nightmare scenario for lawmakers: the possibility of at-large elections in the absence of legislatively approved districts!)

All of which is to say, it appears the Nevada Supreme Court would rather the Legislature did its job.

To be sure, there are problems with this approach. Lawmakers apparently had no success in negotiations during the session. Republicans (including Sandoval, a former federal judge) held fast to the idea that the Voting Rights Act requires the drawing of a Hispanic majority congressional district, which is impossible mathematically and without justification legally. Unless Republicans are willing to reconsider that stance in light of the court’s order, the stalemate of the spring remains in place. But lawmakers are reportedly talking about starting work again, a step in the right direction.

Sandoval this week declared Russell was doing a good job, and that he had confidence the judge would be able to resolve the issue. The court’s order makes clear that the justices don’t share his confidence. (To be sure, they scheduled oral arguments to resolve threshold questions just two days before Russell said he expects to issue a final ruling!)

Redistricting is a political task best left to the political branches, notwithstanding the seemingly intractable arguments. With its four-page order having demonstrated more common sense than anybody else thus far, the Supreme Court has not only shown the way forward — lawmakers, get back to work! — it’s also demonstrated that there’s still an island of sanity left in a state that needs all it can get. 


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 ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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