By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A House committee Tuesday backed legislation that would repeal the criteria courts consider when weighing in on congressional district boundaries.
The controversial measure — House Bill 1408 — is opposed by some Republicans who believe Democrats are attempting to influence redistricting with partisan politics when the process should be a completely non-partisan issue.
The measure was backed by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Tuesday 8-2.
The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, says he is only looking to repeal language that he believes attempted to bias the courts in favor of the Republican Party.
Democrats refer to a last-minute move by Republican lawmakers in 2003 — when they controlled the Legislature — that requires judges to weigh a certain set of criteria when determining congressional redistricting. The Legislature is constitutionally responsible for designating the boundaries, but judges are required to weigh in when the Legislature fails to do so.
Weissmann’s bill would repeal the 2003 law requiring courts to consider six factors — ranked by priority — in considering the legality of a redistricting plan.
The factors are:
• Ensuring districts are comprised of contiguous voting precincts;
• Compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act;
• Keeping cities and counties wholly within districts;
• Preserving communities of interest within districts;
• Keeping districts as compact as possible; and
• Keeping disruption of prior district lines at a minimum.
Weissmann added an amendment to the bill Tuesday that does not necessarily require the courts to consider the six factors, but to “lead their eyes to these areas,” he said.
HB 1408 would eliminate language in the 2003 law that prohibits courts from considering “non-neutral” criteria when determining the fairness of redistricting plans that include “political party registration, political party election performance and other factors that invite the court to speculate about the outcome of an election.”
Concern about rural communities
Republicans are especially concerned about rural communities, worried that the measure would remove a requirement that the eastern plains and western slope are seen as “communities of interest” and therefore should not be split into several congressional districts.
Weissmann and his supporters believe the courts should be kept at a distance when deciding redistricting boundaries — he says that is his motivation, not politics.
“There’s no way to separate out the politics in redistricting, I understand that, but I tried to,” Weissmann testified Tuesday. “It’s just one of those issues that when you say redistricting, political feathers go up, or whatever goes up that’s political … I’m trying to cut through as much of that as I can.”
Redistricting in Colorado and the rest of the nation takes place every 10 years to coincide with population counts derived from the census. The next redistricting will take place in 2011 after the 2010 census.
Republicans argue that their 2003 law created “guardrails” to prevent gerrymandering, or the act of redistricting for political gain.
“Right now what we have is common sense nonpartisan standards,” Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, commented Tuesday during the hearing.
But Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, says HB 1408 would remove “handcuffs” placed on the courts.
“The reason we’re here today is to correct this unjust, midnight, Karl Rove-initiated law from 2003,” he said Tuesday. “This bill restores a sense of fairness, removes the handcuffs and allows the courts to do their job.”
In other coverage:
The Denver Post: What was supposed to be open warfare over a Democratic proposal to alter congressional redistricting law has simmered down some after the sponsor agreed to softer language. The legislation, House Bill 1408, passed the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday on a 7-3 vote, with one Republican, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, supporting it.