In a decision with far-reaching potential — providing good news for House Democrats — the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday morning that a new Congressional redistricting plan for the Centennial State that favors Republicans violates the state Constitution.
The court ordered the boundaries in the state’s seven districts to revert to the contours that were used for the 2002 elections, a decision that makes two of the districts far more competitive than they were in the May 2003 redistricting plan approved by the Republican-led General Assembly.
The plan used for the 2002 elections was drawn by a state court after the Legislature — then split between Democrats and Republicans — deadlocked. In changing the district lines in the final days of the legislative session, Colorado Republicans — who had taken control of the state Senate and House — argued that they were simply fulfilling the Legislature’s once-a-decade duty to the Congressional map.
But the court resoundingly rejected that argument, writing that legislators forfeited their chance to draw the Congressional lines when they could not agree on a plan in their regular session and two special sessions in 2002.
“We conclude that the General Assembly does not have the unprecedented power that it claims,” the judges wrote. They continued: “The state constitution limits redistricting to once per Census, and nothing in state or federal law negates this limitation. Having failed to redistrict when it should have, the General Assembly has lost its chance to redistrict until after the 2010 federal Census.”
The court also scolded Colorado Republican leaders for creating political instability in the state.
“The uncertainty surrounding the 2004 Congressional districts has forced some voters, local officials and interest groups to act as if they could be in either one of two districts, and thus, to expend unnecessary money and effort building relationships with both of their potential representatives and districts,” the court majority wrote.
While the court ruling affects the boundaries of most of the state’s House districts, the decision will be felt most profoundly in two districts: the 7th, in the Denver suburbs and exurbs, and the 3rd, which covers the western half of the state.
The Legislature had transformed the 7th, a new district that freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) won by just 121 votes in 2002, from essentially a tossup district to one that increased George W. Bush’s percentage of the 2000 vote from 49.5 percent to 54.1 percent. Legislators had also taken a significant chunk of the 7th’s Hispanic population out of the district to favor Beauprez.
If the court’s ruling stands — a Colorado GOP leaders may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court — several strong Democratic challengers could come forward to take on Beauprez, who nevertheless has a significant head start in fundraising and organizing thanks to the Legislature’s earlier move.
In the swing 3rd district, where Rep. Scott McInnis (R) is retiring in 2004, the Legislature added rural areas and removed Hispanic neighborhoods in Pueblo, one of the Democratic strongholds of the district.
The court ruling strengthens the likely Democratic nominee in 2004, state Rep. John Salazar (D) — brother, coincidentally, of state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D), who took the redistricting case to court. Half a dozen strong Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination to replace McInnis.
The court ruling could also have some impact on a redistricting challenge in Texas, where the Republican Legislature drew new boundaries this fall that could jeopardize at least half a dozen House Democrats in the Lone Star State.
“The decision today is a direct rebuke to [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [Texas] and the Republican leaders in Washington who have sought to hold their narrow majority in the House by any undemocratic means necessary,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) in a statement. “We look forward to a similar defeat of the illegal Republican redistricting in Texas.”