District Judge James Todd Russell, in a ruling from the bench, accepted the findings of the three-member panel he appointed to tackle the task state lawmakers failed to accomplish during the 2011 session.
“It’s my intent to have this thing done and out of this court by Nevada Day,” Russell said, referring to Oct. 31, the anniversary of Nevada’s statehood. He said he will file a written order by then detailing the final boundaries and his findings.
Democrats were in general acceptance of the proposed maps drawn by the special masters to realign 21 state Senate and 42 Assembly districts and carve out a fourth congressional district from the existing three.
“Let me be clear, these are not the maps that we would have drawn,” Democratic attorney Marc Elias told the judge during Thursday’s hearing. But Democrats raised no substantive objections to the plan.
Lawyers for the Republican Party, in earlier briefs, disputed the panel’s findings that Nevada’s growing Hispanic population doesn’t require a congressional district encompassing a majority of Hispanic voters. They also argued that some state Senate boundaries were unfair to some GOP incumbents.
Russell agreed with the panel that the Voting Rights Act doesn’t mandate one congressional district contain a majority of Hispanic voters because there was no evidence suggesting whites have voted as a bloc to thwart minority candidates, or that Hispanics live in a concentrated enough area to warrant a minority-majority district.
Given the judge’s findings, lawyers for both sides said an appeal on that issue is unlikely.
“We don’t think there’s much more to do there,” said Mark Hutchison, representing the state GOP.
As they stand now, northern Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, now held by Rep. Mark Amodei, would remain sold Republican territory. The 1st District in southern Nevada, held by Rep. Shelley Berkley who is running for the U.S. Senate, would remain a Democratic stronghold. Democrats would have a sizeable advantage in a new 4th congressional district, while the 3rd District currently held by Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, would have a slight Democratic edge based on latest voter registration figures.
But after reviewing written oppositions to the special masters’ plan, Russell worked with the special masters and adjusted the configuration of Senate District 8, held by Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas.
Hutchison argued its misshapen boundaries resembled a “tall palm tree,” in violation of the court’s order that districts should be compact and of regular shape.
Russell also reconfigured two other southern Nevada Senate and Assembly districts, but said the changes would not significantly alter the partisan makeup.
After the hearing, Democratic and Republican parties said they would await Russell’s written order and review the maps in detail before deciding whether to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.
But the case is headed to the high court regardless on a petition filed by Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat. Miller wants the high court to decide whether any judge can resolve the redistricting controversy given that the state constitution requires lawmakers to do it. A hearing on that issue is set for Nov. 14.
In remarks from the bench, Russell noted that no one raised that objection when the case ended up in his court this summer. At that time, he said his goal was to take politics out of the process by appointing the special masters.
“They were focused, they were working as a team in a nonpartisan effort,” he said.
Russell added that the court’s handling of the task would cost less than $50,000. In contrast, a special session costs $100,000 for the first day and $50,000 each day after.
Democrats, who controlled both the Senate and Assembly in this year’s Legislature, passed two sets of maps on party line votes. Both were vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who said they amounted to political gerrymandering and violated the Voting Rights Act.
Maps proposed by Republicans were never given a hearing or brought for vote.
Sandoval refused to call lawmakers into special session to resolve the issue, sending the matter to court.