State's highest court holds that Republican claims can proceed under legal standard proposed by U.S. Supreme Court's liberal justices
MEDIA RELEASE: Wednesday’s New Mexico Supreme Court ruling provides needed guidance on how a lower court should consider a case alleging unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Instead of declining to have New Mexico courts review redistricting maps for partisan gerrymandering, the court offered guidance to the state’s Fifth District Court on how to gauge if New Mexico’s newest congressional district map is fair. In a cross-partisan twist, the court deployed a standard authored by one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more liberal justices to advise Clovis District Judge Fred Van Soelen how to assess the Republicans’ claims of unfairness.
“Some people are declaring yesterday’s decision a victory for New Mexico Republicans, who are challenging in court the state’s redrawn congressional map,” said Hannah Burling co-President of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and Project Leader of Fair Districts for New Mexico. “But no one knows what the final decision on that question will be. Instead, yesterday’s decision is a victory for voters who believe the courts can – and must – protect voters’ constitutional rights by considering cases alleging partisan gerrymandering.”
In its ruling, the New Mexico Supreme Court said that claims of partisan gerrymandering under the state constitution are reviewable by the state courts. This differs from the current U.S. Supreme Court doctrine that held that federal courts cannot decide constitutional challenges to partisan gerrymanders.
"The New Mexico Supreme Court order signals the importance of courts being fair and impartial, by upholding the state constitution and laws unconstrained by political pressure, uninfluenced by the status of the parties—essentially deciding the case on its merits without fear or favor,” said former New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Chavez. “This does not necessarily mean that the underlying case has merit, it means that the checks and balances of our democracy are alive and well in New Mexico."
Heather Balas, Vice President of the Election Reformers Network, pointed out that the New Mexico Supreme Court’s order positions the state to be an example nationally. “What makes this ruling so fascinating is that the state court adopted a standard offered by the liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court to advise a Clovis judge how to assess Republican claims of partisan gerrymandering. It is a case study in nonpartisanship,” said Balas. “Further, New Mexico’s court rightly joins a growing number of other state supreme courts in holding what the U.S. Supreme Court once recognized and what every voter knows to be true: that extreme partisan gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles and causes constitutional harms. Such cases must be at least heard.”
Mason Graham, Policy Director for Common Cause New Mexico noted that New Mexicans deserve a fair and transparent process for redistricting. “This process was flawed from the outset. When elected officials from either party meet in secret to manipulate maps and protect their political power, voters lose faith in our institutions and in democracy itself. In that way, gerrymandering harms us all. Ensuring the courts retain the power to protect the interests of voters is an essential safeguard.” The newly adopted standard that the NM Supreme Court ordered the district court to adopt comes from Justice Kagen's dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause.
Burling said, “As New Mexicans we are proud that on the day following Independence Day, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed the balance of power enshrined in our state constitution and respected by the U.S. Constitution. This is not a win for any political party; this is a victory for all New Mexicans.”
About Fair Districts New Mexico
Fair Districts New Mexico is a statewide coalition convened by the League of Women Voters of New Mexico. It is comprised of over 30 organizations that support fair, transparent and trusted redistricting following the 2020 census. Its primary policy goal is to see New Mexico establish an independent redistricting commission. Regular redistricting updates are posted at RedistrictNM.org with archival information available at www.fairdistrictsnm.org.
A bill to put the question of creation of an Independent Redistricting Commission in New Mexico on the 2024 ballot died Monday in the New Mexico House Judiciary Committee on a 10-1 vote to table. Multiple lawmakers voiced their viewpoint that the legislature should retain authority to draw its own district lines. Advocates for the bill offered extensive testimony, arguing for the bill’s passage and presenting survey data that 77% of likely N.M. voters want an independent redistricting commission and that the Legislature should let voters decide.
Representatives Natalie Figueroa (D-ABQ) and Jason Harper (R-Rio Rancho) presented a compelling case for an independent redistricting commission. They were joined in their presentation by Robert Rhatigan, a member of the 2021 advisory Citizen Redistricting Committee and Heather Balas, Vice President of the Election Reformers Network.
“We are very disappointed,” said Dick Mason of Fair Districts for New Mexico, “What we saw yesterday in the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisanship, but NOT the kind advocates of democracy seek. Both the Republicans and Democrats members of the committee came together to protect their own power.; Despite legitimate concerns about partisan gerrymandering, redistricting in New Mexico has been primarily about incumbency protection for legislators of both major parties.”
Despite the committee’s vote to oppose the bill, there was no opposition from the public. Instead, the following organizations offered testimony in support of HJR1: Adelante Progressive Caucus ; Retake our Democracy; American Association of University Women; Election Reformers Network; Fair Districts New Mexico; League of Women Voters of New Mexico; Lutheran Advocacy Ministries; New Mexico Council of Churches; National Organization for Women; New Mexico First Redistricting Task Force; Progressive Democrats of America – Central New Mexico and Vecinos United
Other organizations contacted Committee members in advance of the hearing to support HJR1
“Data from multiple other states with Independent Redistricting Commissions objectively demonstrate that, when voting boundaries are drawn by these independent groups, the maps are less biased and more reflective of communities, than when drawn by legislatures,” said Heather Balas of the national research organization Election Reformers Network. “Given the rising degree of polarization and distrust by voters in the election system, New Mexico and other states must take action to advance proven reforms to make our system more fair.”
A repeating concern by advocates across the country is the inherent conflict of interest for legislators to draw their own district lines and Congressional boundaries that are often seen to advance the majority parties and/or protect incumbents. These concerns were repeated voiced by New Mexico advocates.
Kathleen Burke of Fair Districts for New Mexico, a coalition of over 40 organizations that supported HJR1, said Fair Districts will work with bill sponsors and advocates to reintroduce the bill in the 2024 session.
For Immediate release
February 21, 2023
Contact: Dick Mason
The proposed legislation to establish an Independent Redistricting Committee, HJR-1, received a "Do Pass" vote from the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee (HGEAC) in Santa Fe. This vote enables the draft constitutional amendment to move to the House Judiciary Committee, which must also approve it before it can move to the House Floor.
The bill's bipartisan co-sponsors, Rep. Natalie Figueroa and Rep. Jason Harper, each spoke for the bill, along with advocates from many organizations statewide. Additionally, Jeremy Farris of the State Ethics Commission and Heather Balas of the Election Reformers Network provided context as expert witnesses.
Advocates are urged to call and thank members of HGEAC and also House Judiciary members, urging them to approve the bill when it comes to them.
Republican House member Jason Harper joined Democrat Natalie Figueroa in sponsoring House Joint Resolution 1, aiming to create an Independent Redistricting Commission in New Mexico.
The bill, which would call for a Constitutional Amendment and ultimately approval by voters, will be heard later this month in the NM House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.
NM Rep. Natalie Figueroa again advanced the cause of independent redistricting in New Mexico by sponsoring legislation. Her bill, HJR-1, would amend the state constitution to create an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC).
Key aspects of the bill include: