In a move Democrats hope will narrow or even shift the balance of political power nationwide, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that congressional districts crafted by state Republicans earlier this year were unconstitutional.
The 5-2 decision means at least two GOP seats once considered safe will be up for grabs.
“This has major implications, because Colorado now has two of the most competitive districts in the country,” said Chris Gates, the Democratic state party chairman.
“The [national] Democratic Party intends to make Colorado a battleground state. You are going to see more money and more resources poured in here, with higher-level candidates.”
Republicans now hold five of the state’s seven congressional seats.
The court ruling comes at a time when redistricting plans are being contested in Texas and, next week, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decisions, observers say, will not only help determine the makeup of Congress, but they will also set a precedent for how much the courts are willing to intervene in the legislative process.
“This really goes to who makes the law, unelected judges or elected representatives,” said Colorado state Senate President John Andrews, a Republican.
But with a mere 12 seats keeping them from effectively regaining the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats want to improve the odds any way they can. Republicans now hold 229 seats and the Democrats 205; there is one independent representative who usually sides with the Democrats.
Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, condemned Monday’s decision as an “incredible stretch” by the court and said it would likely be appealed.
He added that most of the judges were Democratic appointees, which likely influenced their decision.
“The national implications are huge, but the decision wasn’t surprising,” he said. “This is Round 1. We will very likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the decision was an “enormous rebuke” to the Colorado Republican Party.
“Republicans have demonstrated time and again that they will seize power when they can and break rules if that’s what it takes to win,” he said.
In its 90-page decision, the court argued that in the interest of fairness, redistricting could be done only once every 10 years, when a new census came out.
“Having failed to redistrict when it should have, the General Assembly has lost its chance to redistrict until after the 2010 federal census,” the court said.
Democrats successfully argued that redistricting already had occurred in 2002, when a federal judge in Denver drew up congressional boundaries after a divided General Assembly couldn’t agree on what they should be.
Republicans said the judge’s plan was only temporary, until the Legislature could create its own districts.
When they won control of the assembly, Republicans carved up districts to largely benefit GOP candidates. Their map became law in May.
Colorado Atty. Gen. Kenneth Salazar immediately filed suit. On Monday, he called the decision a “great victory for the people of Colorado.”
He denied being motivated by politics, even though his brother -- a Democratic state representative -- is widely expected to run for the hotly contested 7th District seat.
“I have not to this day looked at the maps and how they were drawn,” he said.
In October, Texas Republicans also threw out a court-ordered redistricting plan for one of their own making, one that critics said was designed to win them seven seats.
That plan has been challenged in the courts.
The spate of contested redistricting plans has even reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a Pennsylvania gerrymandering case next week -- its first in 15 years.
“The speculation is that the Supreme Court was reading the papers and headlines and thought there were some extreme things going on in Colorado and Texas and decided to take the case,” said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “We were shocked they took it.”
Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who often is hired to redraw congressional districts, said critical issues of how Congress is elected are at stake.
“When you place this [Colorado] case in context of what is happening in Texas and [the Pennsylvania case] next week in the Supreme Court, it raises the fundamental issue of whether judges will rein in the partisan gerrymanderers of the last few years,” he said.
“This is part of the continuing fight between judges and legislatures on who will control redistricting.”
He noted that Democrats have been as willing as Republicans to carve districts to their advantage when the opportunity arises.
In Colorado, the major battlegrounds will be the 3rd and 7th districts.
Congressman Bob Beauprez, a Republican representing the 7th District, won by just 121 votes last year -- the narrowest margin of victory in the House.
“Incumbents are hard to beat,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Clearly, this thing is being over-hyped, and it’s far from over.”
Beauprez issued a statement Monday saying the court’s decision would not affect his commitment to his constituents.
In the 3rd District, incumbent Republican Scott McInnis has said he will retire when his term ends.
Legal observers doubt the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the Colorado decision, because it is based on the state’s Constitution, which justices usually respect.
Still, Monday’s ruling gave some pause.
“I worry about the courts getting too involved in these redistricting fights,” Persily said.
“The further the court ventures into this political thicket, the more people will question their motivation, the more contentious the confirmation fights will be and the greater the threat to the independence and integrity of the judiciary.”