California Supreme Court appears headed to suspend new state Senate district maps

A woman walks into the State of California Earl Warren building.
A woman walks into the State of California Earl Warren building.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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California’s Supreme Court justices appear poised to suspend a new state Senate districts drawn by a citizen’s commission. That’s until and IF opponents of the new maps qualify a referendum for the November ballot to overturn the maps.

Republicans have accused California’s Redistricting Commission of drawing up partisan Senate districts. That’s the opposite of what voters in the state endorsed when they passed propositions 11 and 20 to create a citizens group to re-draw California’s electoral districts.

Referendum supporters want California’s highest court to block the maps from taking effect in this year’s elections. Their attorney, Charles Bell argued that the propositions that established the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission give voters a “back stop” to block the commission maps if a referendum to overturn them “appears likely to qualify” for the ballot.

“The people have said at this preliminary stage, in our view, that they want to be able to vote on those maps.” Bell told the justices, “They don’t want the political process foreclosed.”

Bell said a random sampling of signatures gathered for the referendum found about 513,000 are valid, nearly 10,000 more signatures than the referendum needs to get on the ballot.

But Deputy Attorney General George Waters for the Secretary of State Deborah Bowen — a Democrat — says it is too early to know whether the referendum on the Senate maps is “likely” to qualify. Waters told the justices that by the time California has an answer, it will be too late to start redrawing lines for this year’s elections.

“I think that someone would have to come forth with some evidence, and probably a declaration from an expert.” Waters said.

“But why would the people of California want to put this court in a straight jacket?” Justice Marvin Baxter interrupted. “You can’t act until after the sampling’s been done and it’s been verified and by that time it’s too late to do anything.’ It seems to me that argument leads us to an impossible situation.”

The California Supreme Court justices appear to be inclined to appoint a special master to draw up new Senate districts — in case the referendum gets on the ballot.

Referendum supporters have suggested the state could stick with existing districts for all Senate seats that up for election this year.

Justice Goodwin Liu suggested the special master could even use the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission’s maps, temporarily, if those maps appear to be better than the rest. If the referendum fails to get on the ballot then the Commission’s Senate district maps would stand.