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California high court backs panel's new state Senate districts

The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Friday that candidates for state Senate this year should run in new districts drawn by a citizens commission, a plan that may give Democrats a two-thirds majority in the upper house.

In a ruling written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the court said the election districts drawn by the nonpartisan commission, established after a 2008 ballot initiative, were legal and better than alternatives proposed by Republican opponents.

The court, six of whose seven members were appointed by Republicans, called the commission's maps "a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process."

Even if a proposal to scrap the new districts qualifies for the November ballot, "the commission's certified map is clearly the most appropriate map to be used in the 2012 state Senate elections," Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

Republican leaders denounced the ruling, accusing the court of undermining the referendum process. The ballot measure is edging toward qualification, although a complete count is not expected until Feb. 24.

Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) called the court's decision "short-sighted and disrespectful of the over 700,00 Californians who signed referendum petitions."

Dave Gilliard, the GOP advisor behind the referendum drive, linked Cantil-Sakauye to the late Chief Justice Rose Bird, who wrote a key precedent that allowed new maps to be used in the 1982 election even though a referendum to repeal them was headed for the ballot.

"Sadly, the Chief Justice applied a flawed, politically-based precedent established by former Chief Justice Rose Bird, who was removed from office by the voters for repeatedly ignoring the Constitution and the will of the voters," Gilliard said.

The new maps may pave the way for Senate Democrats to pick up two seats this year, giving them the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes, according to Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who analyzes election contests in his nonpartisan California Target Book.

"Senate Democrats have a very good opportunity to win a super-majority in the Senate," Hoffenblum said.

He noted that the voter registry in Republican Sen. Sam Blakeslee's new Central Coast district is 45% Democratic and 29% Republican. Blakeslee has told his hometown newspaper, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, that he is leaning against running for reelection in the new 17th Senate District.

Another district vulnerable to a Democratic takeover is the new 19th, which will be 44% Democrat and 32% Republican. The current 19th District is represented by Republican Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, who has announced that he is running for Congress.

To pass tax bills, Democrats would also need a two-thirds vote in the Assembly, where experts say it is less likely that the fall election would produce a super-majority.

Democrats in the Senate said the court upheld the wishes of voters who approved a 2008 initiative that took redrawing of state legislative districts out of the hands of lawmakers and gave it to a panel of citizens chosen, in part, because of their lack of political ties.

"Senate Democrats are pleased but aren't surprised that the Supreme Court wisely decided to uphold the clear will of California voters," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Reapportionment battles tend to come before the court every 10 years, when political districts are redrawn to reflect the results of the latest census.

Opponents of the new districts are entitled to try to repeal them by initiative. If a referendum against redistricting qualifies for the ballot, the new districts are nullified and the California Supreme Court must decide which maps to use for the coming elections.

The court agreed to decide the issue before the referendum qualified to give election officials time to prepare for the June primary. Twenty of the 40 state Senate seats are up for election this year.

"We faced a serious problem of timing and coordination," Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.

Justice Goodwin Liu, the sole Democratic appointee on the court, urged restraint in a separate concurring opinion. He said the court should decide which election districts to use only when a referendum was more likely than not to qualify for the ballot.

Quoting Justice Felix Frankfurter that courts "ought not to enter this political thicket," Liu said Friday's ruling may have "the unintended consequence of inviting future litigants to bring their grievances with the redistricting process to the court."

"As this court's own experience shows, redistricting controversies are fraught with political peril," Liu wrote. "Where one judge see prudence, another may seen partisanship."

The new district maps for the state Senate, Assembly and California's congressional delegation were drawn last summer for the first time by a citizens commission created by the voters. The panel was made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people not affiliated with the two main parties.

Peter Yao, chairman of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, called the court's decision "a great victory for the people" and complained that the challenge was "based on partisan self-interest" and consumed taxpayer dollars.

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