December 9, 2011

Redistricting writ petition: January just got busier for the Supreme Court [Updated]

Just when we thought January was going to be a relatively easy month at the Supreme Court, the court issues an order today that will make the new year a lot more eventful. The order regards the writ petition filed only a week ago seeking to stay implementation of the newly certified State Senate district map.

Redistricting is occurring this year under a new system, where a citizen’s commission instead of the Legislature draws the maps. Under the new system, any registered voter can ask the Supreme Court to stay implementation of a map if the map is “subject to a referendum measure that is likely to qualify.” Over 700,000 referendum signatures have been submitted to the California Secretary of State to challenge the State Senate map.

But what does “likely to qualify” mean? That, among other things, is what the Surpeme Court is asking today. And it wants an answer very quickly. The court issued an order to show cause and has set what it (accurately) calls an “extremely expedited briefing schedule” that will allow “oral argument in this matter as early as the first two weeks in January 2012, and the filing of an opinion in this matter as early as the end of January 2012.” All remaining briefing — including a response to the order to show cause, a reply to the response, amicus briefs, and any reply to amicus briefs — is to be completed by December 22, just 13 days from today.

Meanwhile, over at the Secretary of State’s office, the process continues to assess whether the referendum will qualify. The Secretary’s website explains that the county election officials are currently verifying a random sampling of referendum signatures. If the random sampling indicates that there will be a total number of valid signatures equal to between 95 percent and 110 percent of the signatures necessary for the referendum to qualify, every single signature must be verified. If there are less than 95 percent valid signatures, the referendum fails without more checking; if more than 110 percent, it qualifies.

To complicate the Supreme Court’s job, it looks like the State Senate map referendum signatures are headed for a full verification. Counties need not report their random samplings until January 10 and many of the counties with the most signatures have yet to report, but, through yesterday, just under 70 percent of the randomly sampled signatures have proved valid, which translates to less than 98 percent of the total signatures needed. (504,760 signatures are needed to qualify; 708,998 signatures were submitted.)

Is a referendum “likely to qualify” if the referendum’s qualification is enough in doubt that a full verification is necessary? Would the Supreme Court forego predicting the likelihood of qualification and just wait for the full verification before ruling, even though the court said it’s acting quickly because of “the short time frame imposed by the impending 2012 electoral cycle”? New laws often create as many legal questions as they answer.

UPDATE: The court has posted filings in the writ proceeding. And here is an amicus letter from Charles Munger, Jr., a supporter of the two initiatives that created the current redistricting system.

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