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Jan. 24, 2022

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Washington Supreme Court declines to draw new redistricting plan

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OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court on Friday said a plan adopted by the Washington Redistricting Commission “substantially complied” with statutory deadlines, and declined to adopt a new redistricting plan for the state.

“This is not a situation in which the Supreme Court must step in because the Commission has failed to agree on a plan it believes complies with state and federal requirements,” the justices wrote. “The court concludes that the primary purpose of achieving a timely redistricting plan would be impeded, not advanced, by rejecting the Commission’s completed work.”

The five-page order was signed by all nine justices and it returns the issue to the commission for any final steps necessary before sending new political maps to the Legislature. If lawmakers want to make any changes, they must do so within the first 30 days of the legislative session, which starts Jan. 10, and any change must be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

Commission spokesman Jamie Nixon said in an email that the quick decision from the court was appreciated.

“The Commission will carefully review the decision and update the public on next steps soon,” he wrote.

The Redistricting Commission consisted of four voting members — two Democrats and two Republicans — appointed by legislative caucus leaders. The Democratic appointees were former legislator Brady Piñero Walkinshaw and state labor-council leader April Sims; Republican commissioners were former state legislators Joe Fain and Paul Graves.

By law, at least three of the four had to agree on new political maps by Nov. 15. After going into a scheduled public meeting via Zoom at 7 p.m. the night of the deadline, the commissioners went into closed-door caucuses, which drew criticism. They then voted hastily just before midnight without showing the maps they just voted on.

Commissioners defended their chaotic final hours of work at a news conference last month, saying it was hampered by a late 2020 Census, limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic and technological issues such as crashing computers.

But all four commissioners agreed the tardy maps that were ultimately produced had their full support and should be considered by the Supreme Court justices.

In a FAQ document released along with the order, the court noted that the commissioners vote for the plan came before the constitutional deadline, and that the missed their statutory deadline to transmit the plan to the legislature by 13 minutes.

“Given all of the work the commission did, and given that it only missed the statutory deadline by 13 minutes, the court concluded that the commission substantially complied with the statute,” the document says.

In a statement, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said he was concerned that a proposed legislative district may not comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act.

“We had hoped the Court would take a closer look at several aspects of the map that may not comply with state and federal laws and make changes, especially related to the proposed Legislative District in the Yakima Valley,” he said in a written statement. “Even if we are not in full agreement, we respect the Court’s authority and will move forward accordingly.”

The order states that the court has not evaluated and does not render any opinion on the plan’s compliance with any statutory and constitutional requirements other than the November 15th deadline.

In the FAQ document, the court noted that there “may be legal challenges to the plans that may come to the court.”

“The court is making no judgments about those cases at this time,” the document states.

House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox said the court properly respected the process and the institution and made the right decision. He said clearly there were issues with transparency related to the final vote, and he said a decade from now when the commission is tasked with this process once again, he hoped “they don’t forget how this looked to everyone.”

The redrawn maps for the 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts will be in place for the next decade, starting with the 2022 midterm elections.

Washington didn’t gain a new U.S. House seat following the latest census, and currently, Washington has seven Democratic U.S. House members and three Republicans. The state Legislature is controlled by Democrats.

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