SPOKANE — The state Supreme Court late Thursday ordered the chair of Washington’s Redistricting Commission to detail what actions the panel took earlier this week when it missed a deadline to approve new political maps.
Because the commission failed to meet its deadline of 11:59 p.m. Monday, the high court justices will now take over the complex job of creating 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts, with a new deadline of April 30.
Earlier Thursday, members of the redistricting commission acknowledged their work was “chaotic” but urged the Supreme Court to accept their final product even though it was produced after the legal time limit.
In its order, the court told the chair of the panel to file a sworn declaration by noon Monday that details the events of of Nov. 15-16 because it was unclear what exactly the commission members did — and when.
“This should include the timing of any votes taken by the commission, exactly what each vote was regarding, and any other actions taken by the commission relevant to their constitutional and statutory obligations,” the order signed by Chief Justice Steven C. González said.
This is the first time the panel has failed to finish its work on time since the state adopted a constitutional amendment giving redistricting authority to a bipartisan commission after the 1990 census.
Commissioners defended their work at a news conference, saying it was hampered by a late 2020 Census, limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic and technological issues such as crashing computers.
“It was chaotic,” Republican commissioner Paul Graves said of the Monday night rush to try and meet the deadline.
But all four commissioners agreed the tardy maps that were ultimately produced on Tuesday had their full support and should be considered by the Supreme Court justices.
The commissioners also admitted their work on the final night lacked the required transparency.
“I believe in open government and the chaos of that night fell short of that,” Graves said.
The commissioners were able to resolve one of their thorniest issues, which was creating a majority-Latino state legislative district in the agricultural Yakima Valley, which was required under the provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.
“I very much think it complies with the VRA,” Republican commissioner Joe Fain said of the newly-drawn 15th Legislative District.
But others disputed Fain’s conclusion.
“I do have a significant concern that the Yakima Valley district may not be compliant with the federal Voting Rights Act,” State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the Senate majority leader, said in a staement. “I hope the Supreme Court will closely examine this section of the map and use its authority to create a map that ensures Latino voters in the Yakima Valley can elect the candidate of their choice.”
The UCLA Voting Rights Project said its analysis showed that the commission failed to create “a majority-Latino citizen voting-age population district.”
“The growth of the Latino population has been especially large in the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities region,” the group said.
Meanwhile, the Washington State Republican Party was upset the Supreme Court justices will now draw the political maps.
“I am afraid that the liberal justices on the State Supreme Court will seek to impose their extreme agenda on the people of Washington State by drawing maps that illegally favor Democrats,” said Caleb Heimlich, head of the state GOP.
Washington’s Supreme Court justices are elected, but he positions are non-partisan.
Redistricting commissioner April Sims, a Democrat, said the court should adopt the commission’s tardy maps.
“These maps are legitimate,” she said.
The court’s April 30 deadline would give candidates and incumbents less than three weeks to know the boundaries of their U.S. House and legislative districts before the May 20, 2022, deadline to file for office.
Currently, Washington has seven Democratic U.S. House members and three Republicans. The state Legislature is controlled by Democrats.
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 Sims; Republican commissioners were former state legislators Joe Fain and Graves.
By law, at least three of the four had to agree on new political maps by Nov. 15.
Commissioners said Thursday they were very close to reaching agreement as the deadline loomed, and that the late maps reflected that agreement.
“We did all vote for the agreement,” Walkinshaw said.