For decades, California's legislative and congressional districts were carved up and redrawn every 10 years by the leaders of the Assembly, the state Senate and whatever other political operatives they allowed into their locked and (in image, at least) smoke-filled room. They had two goals: ensure that the new lines protected or even expanded their party's majority in Sacramento and in the state's congressional delegation; and protect incumbents who supported the leadership by providing them safe districts for reelection. Instead of voters selecting their politicians, the politicians selected their voters. Democracy suffered.
Fed up, voters in 2008 created the nonpartisan California Citizens Redistricting Commission, taking the legislative line-drawing task away from the politicians and giving it to a panel of residents selected by a complicated but nonpartisan process that cuts out the role of party leaders. Two years later, voters added congressional district lines to the commission's purview.
California was following in the footsteps of Arizona, whose voters established a similar process in 2000. But Arizona's system is now being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court, and if it falls, the portion of California's that governs congressional district lines is likely to fall with it.
The challenge to Arizona's commission comes from the state's Legislature, which wants to win back its redistricting power. The plaintiffs cite the Constitution's Article I, Section 4, which says that each state legislature shall prescribe the "Times, Places and Manner" of holding elections for Congress. In other words, lawmakers get to decide when, where and how voting is done.
The justices will hear oral arguments Monday. As they do, they should keep a few points uppermost in their minds.
It's important to note that voters in every state assign their lawmaking function to a legislature, but in many states — including California and Arizona — that assignment comes with limits. Voters often make laws directly. In California, especially, the people are an integral part of the legislative process and, in essence, a super-legislature.
The will of the people who create and elect the Legislature, and who take back power from it when it doesn't serve them well, ought to trump the power of self-dealing political bosses who have come to dominate it.
Besides, there is nothing in the constitutional language that inherently applies to redistricting. The "Manner" of holding elections might reasonably be interpreted to apply to practical or mechanical questions, for example, whether voting can be done electronically. It would be a stretch to put redistricting every 10 years into the same category.