Callaghan: Court ends Vancouver man’s fight for fair redistricting

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Can one person take on the state’s governmental and political establishment over the recent redrawing of the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries? Yes, according to the state constitution and laws that govern redistricting. Both the 1983 constitutional amendment that created the redistricting commission and the laws passed to implement it give regular citizens a role.

Yet when John Milem of Vancouver challenged the congressional and legislative lines adopted by the commission Jan. 1, state lawyers sought to draw out the process and then argued it was too late to review the work of the commission in time for this election. Rather than thwart such a move and give full effect to the rights of people like Milem, the state Supreme Court went along.

When it ruled last week that the commission plan will control this year’s elections, the court in essence ended Milem’s challenge. That’s because since the court agreed that it would be too disruptive to change the political lines this late in the 2012 election cycle, it likely will decide that changing them after a lengthy legal process will be too disruptive as well. But the solution would have been to act as the law requires, to expedite the schedule and, if need be, order new maps done by a lower court or a special master.

Milem is a retired business executive with a law degree from Harvard who has had a lifelong fascination with political redistricting. He attended nearly every commission meeting, submitting his own maps and offering testimony based on his deep knowledge of the law and the process. The commission even adopted a resolution thanking him for his work and agreed to many of his suggestions for technical fixes. But they ignored his basic theme, that the maps should be done in the public interest and not to satisfy political parties and incumbent politicians.

“The role they let me play was in the small stuff,” Milem told The Columbian in January.

The heart of his court challenge is that the commission did not follow state law and draw districts that divide counties and cities as seldom as possible. He claims the commission did not follow the open public meetings law as required and did not explain the criteria it used to craft a plan, also required. He also thinks the plans do not meet the requirement that districts be convenient and compact, citing for example the 18th District in Clark County that is “one arm short of a swastika” so as to include the homes of district incumbents without capturing incumbents from neighboring districts.

Politically driven process

Milem states the obvious, that politics drove the process. A commission appointed by legislative leaders and mostly staffed by partisan appointees first protected incumbents and then horse-traded to even up the party advantages and disadvantages. But that is forbidden by the state constitution, which says plans “shall not be drawn purposely to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.” Perhaps commissioners thought that if the political spoils were divided more or less equally, neither party is favored or discriminated against. But it can’t cure one episode of favoritism by engaging in another because Democrats and Republicans don’t make up 100 percent of the state.

I’m certain politicians and their handlers snicker at the naivete of those of us who think politics shouldn’t have played such a dominant role. Still, nearly everyone involved applied a wink-wink, nudge-nudge interpretation of the law that forced them to claim politics didn’t play a big role while doing much to make sure it did. And since all decisions were made outside the public eye, no one but the staff and commissioners know for sure.

So John Milem can proceed with his pro se battle against the attorney general, knowing the Supreme Court is just fine with delaying it for months, if not years. But what looks like a procedural decision by the court changed the effect of the law and denied citizens the right to meaningfully challenge the state’s new political maps.