Reading between the lines of Iowa Supreme Court statement on redistricting

After declining for months to clarify how it might approach redistricting later this year, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an unsigned statement on April 8 “concerning its tentative plans.” Although the justices didn’t lay out a specific course of action, they hinted at principles that will govern their decisions on Iowa’s next set of political maps.

WHY THE COURT WILL BE INVOLVED

In a normal redistricting year, Iowa would be far along the path toward adopting new Congressional and legislative maps, and the Supreme Court would play no role in the process.

Following the last census, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) released its first proposal on March 31, 2011. Three public hearings on the maps were held during the first week of April. The Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission recommended on April 11 that state legislators adopt the proposal. Both chambers approved the maps on April 14, with only one dissenting vote in the Senate and seven in the House. Governor Terry Branstad signed the bill on April 19.

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau is months behind schedule in providing population data to states. The bureau has said it will provide the data by September 30, and could release “legacy format summary redistricting data” by mid- to late August. However, federal officials warned about “the difficulty of using the data in this format.” LSA senior legal counsel Ed Cook, who has worked on the last several Iowa redistricting plans, told Bleeding Heartland on March 24, “we don’t know for sure” whether the agency will be able to use the legacy format data.

Iowa’s constitution calls for the legislature to adopt a map of state House and Senate districts by September 1. If the map hasn’t become law by September 15, the constitution stipulates that authority over redistricting moves to the Iowa Supreme Court, which is to have a new legislative map drawn by December 31.

COURT FAVORS “FRAMEWORK PRESENTLY SET FORTH” IN IOWA LAW

I’ve enclosed the Iowa Supreme Court’s full statement at the end of this post. Here’s the key excerpt:

If the general assembly is not able to meet the constitutional deadline, the supreme court tentatively plans to meet its constitutional responsibility by implementing a process which permits, to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in Iowa Code chapter 42 to proceed after September 15. Under such a process, the supreme court would “cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the constitution prior to December 31.”

Legally and constitutionally, the supreme court cannot commit to a future course of action beforehand. Thus, the statement herein should not be considered legally binding. Additionally, at the present time, the supreme court does not anticipate answering additional questions or making further statements on the subject of redistricting.

Indeed, the spokesperson for the Iowa Judicial Branch did not answer further questions, such as “whether the court’s statement means the Legislature will be able to vote on the redistricting maps after the constitutional deadline has passed.”

I would have preferred a more detailed preview of how the justices want the process to play out. But we can make a few inferences.

DOES THE COURT WANT LAWMAKERS TO VOTE ON NEW MAPS?

Under Iowa Code Chapter 42, the LSA uses Census Bureau data to draw up maps of Congressional and state legislative districts, then delivers one set of maps to the legislature. State lawmakers can vote the first map up or down, but cannot amend it. If one or both chambers reject the first map, or the governor vetoes it, the LSA has 35 days to prepare a second set of maps for the legislature to consider. Again, members of the Iowa House and Senate can vote for or against the proposal, but can’t amend it.

If the second set of maps fails to pass, the LSA has 35 days to prepare a third set of maps. This time, state legislators can amend the proposal before approving it for the governor’s consideration.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver speculated on the latest edition of “Iowa Press” that although the Supreme Court statement “was a little vague,” he thinks the justices want legislators to vote on the LSA plans, even if maps are produced after September 15. In a written statement issued on April 8, Whitver said,

The U.S. Constitution, the Iowa Constitution, and Iowa law all place the responsibility for the redistricting process in the hands of the Iowa Legislature. I share the court’s desire to retain Iowa’s current redistricting process and the Iowa Legislature’s role, despite the pointless and legally dubious delays from the Biden Administration.

The census delay is anything but “pointless,” of course. The purpose of the decennial census is to get an accurate count.

House Speaker Pat Grassley was less presumptuous in the brief statement he released on April 8, saying, “Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting process is considered one of the fairest in all 50 states. I appreciate the Iowa Supreme Court’s willingness to protect the integrity of our current, highly-praised redistricting process in Iowa.”

NO GUARANTEES

The court’s statement noted, “Legally and constitutionally, the supreme court cannot commit to a future course of action beforehand. Thus, the statement herein should not be considered legally binding.” That may suggest justices will allow legislators to proceed as Iowa Code Chapter 42 provides, even after September 15, but the court reserves its authority to step in and adopt new maps without legislative approval.

Some Iowa Democrats have expressed concern that the GOP-controlled House and Senate could vote down the first two nonpartisan maps and alter the third to a gerrymander. Since Iowa adopted the current redistricting process, the legislature has never amended one of the LSA maps. However, at a forum in January, Grassley and Whitver declined to rule out any changes to a third map.

Without knowing when the LSA might be able to produce a map, it’s hard to guess whether legislators would have time to reject two plans and receive a third in time to amend and enact it by the constitutional deadline of December 31. Attempting a Republican gerrymander would be risky in this scenario, because the Iowa Supreme Court would not be obliged to accept what the House and Senate approve. After September 15, the constitution gives the court the power to handle legislative apportionment.

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls alluded to this possible outcome in his reaction to the court’s comments.

Today’s statement from the Iowa Supreme Court regarding their role in this year’s unique redistricting process, underscores the importance of adhering to the Constitution and Iowa law as currently written.

As we began the 2021 redistricting process in Iowa, Governor Reynolds, Legislative Republicans, and Legislative Democrats have all promised that we will not change Iowa’s redistricting law. Iowans need fair maps and a fair redistricting process so voters can pick their legislators instead of legislators picking their voters.

Fair maps require the best possible data from U.S. Census Bureau, which may result in our state missing the September 15 constitutional deadline. The Supreme Court will have a crucial role if that delay occurs, and it is imperative that the Court ensure we continue Iowa’s long tradition of fair maps for every Iowan.

COURT SILENT ON CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING

The Supreme Court’s statement refers to legislative redistricting but not to new U.S. House districts, presumably because the Iowa Constitution sets no deadline for drawing districts. During the March 1 meeting of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission, the LSA’s Cook discussed the possibility that legislative and Congressional redistricting could proceed on separate tracks. Does that mean Republican lawmakers could gerrymander new Congressional districts after the Iowa Supreme Court signs off on new legislative maps?

That would be risky as well. The LSA typically draws a Congressional map first and works down from there to state Senate and House districts, because Iowa Code Chapter 42.4 (6) stipulates,

In order to minimize electoral confusion and to facilitate communication within state legislative districts, each plan drawn under this section shall provide that each representative district is wholly included within a single senatorial district and that, so far as possible, each representative and each senatorial district shall be included within a single congressional district.

A Congressional map drawn by Republicans without regard to state legislative boundaries would be challenged, and the Iowa Supreme Court would rule on any such litigation. If there’s one clear message from the court’s statement, it’s that the justices want this year’s redistricting process to follow provisions in Iowa Code Chapter 42.

Any comments related to the next set of political maps are welcome in this thread.


Appendix: Full text of April 8 Iowa Supreme Court statement

Redistricting must occur every ten years.  2021 is one of those years.  The Iowa Constitution gives the primary responsibility for reapportionment of legislative districts to the general assembly.  The general assembly has adopted a nonpartisan redistricting law to perform this task.  See Iowa Code ch. 42.

Under the Iowa Constitution, the supreme court has responsibility for reapportionment of legislative districts only if the general assembly fails to enact a reapportionment before September 15 of the redistricting year. Specifically, the Iowa Constitution provides,

“The general assembly shall in 1971 and in each year immediately following the United States decennial census determine the number of senators and representatives to be elected to the general assembly and establish senatorial and representative districts. The general assembly shall complete the apportionment prior to September 1 of the year so required. If the apportionment fails to become law prior to September 15 of such year, the supreme court shall cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the constitution prior to December 31 of such year.”

Unfortunately, this year, it appears that the U.S. Census Bureau will not deliver redistricting data to Iowa in time for the general assembly to meet the foregoing constitutional deadline. If that occurs, responsibility for redistricting will fall to the supreme court.

The supreme court has received inquiries about what it will do if the constitutional deadline is not met and the supreme court must “cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts.”

Because the supreme court is a court, the supreme court generally does not comment publicly on matters that may come before it or that may be the subject of possible litigation.  The supreme court also does not commit to a position it will take on a matter before that matter is before it.  Courts adhere to these practices in order to assure fairness to parties.

Nevertheless, because of the considerable public concern surrounding the redistricting process, and because the court is aware that other state supreme courts have issued orders relating to redistricting, the supreme court has decided to make a statement concerning its tentative plans.

If the general assembly is not able to meet the constitutional deadline, the supreme court tentatively plans to meet its constitutional responsibility by implementing a process which permits, to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in Iowa Code chapter 42 to proceed after September 15. Under such a process, the supreme court would “cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the constitution prior to December 31.”

Legally and constitutionally, the supreme court cannot commit to a future course of action beforehand. Thus, the statement herein should not be considered legally binding. Additionally, at the present time, the supreme court does not anticipate answering additional questions or making further statements on the subject of redistricting.

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