Photo depicting the exterior of the Washington State Temple of Justice.

State Supreme Court Returns Redistricting Issue Back to Legislators

by Ben Adlin

The Washington Supreme Court decided Friday, Dec. 3, that district maps approved last month by the Washington State Redistricting Commission can proceed to lawmakers for review despite the commission missing a key deadline by 13 minutes.

The court, which by law is supposed to adopt its own redistricting plan in cases where the redistricting commission misses its deadline, punted the redistricting issue back to the commission. In an order signed by all nine justices, the court said that “the primary purpose of achieving a timely redistricting plan would be impeded, not advanced, by rejecting the Commission’s completed work.”

The court concluded that “the Washington State Redistricting Commission met the constitutional deadline and substantially complied with the statutory deadline to transmit the matter to the legislature.” The order stated, “The Washington State Redistricting Commission shall complete any remaining tasks necessary to complete its work so that the process for finalizing the redistricting plan … may proceed.”

Redrawing voting district boundaries happens every 10 years, following updated U.S. Census information, and has the potential to tip elections in favor of one candidate or another by determining what neighborhoods and communities compose a given district. 

Equity and open-government advocates, however, are now weighing whether to sue in an effort stop the commission’s plan from moving forward. Commission members violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by discussing the proposals privately at their Nov. 15 meeting, critics say, and ultimately approved maps that run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Following months of meetings, the redistricting commission approved its proposed legislative and congressional district boundary maps in the final minutes of a Nov. 15 meeting, before a midnight deadline. The votes came after hours of chaotic, behind-closed-doors meetings, and observers were left wondering what had happened.

While the body approved the maps themselves before midnight, members didn’t vote to send the final plan to the legislature until 12:01 a.m., and the plan wasn’t actually transmitted to lawmakers until 12:13 a.m. That’s according to the commission’s own declaration, which the state Supreme Court order accepts as fact.

“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,” justices wrote in Friday’s order, ruling that that commission “substantially complied with the essential purpose” of the state law requiring them to approve and transmit a plan to the legislature by the last month’s deadline.

In a statement following the order, the commission said it “appreciates the Supreme Court’s quick decision to allow the redistricting process to continue forward,” adding that it “will carefully review the decision and update the public on next steps soon.”

Advocates for both government transparency and BIPOC representation in Washington’s voting districts say they’re disappointed with the state Supreme Court’s decision and are considering challenging the commission’s proposal in court.

Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the organization’s board had authorized a lawsuit if executives deem it necessary — a decision leaders are hoping to make in the coming week. For his part, Fancher called a lawsuit “highly likely.”

“We do believe that the process that they used was in violation of the Open Meetings Act,” he told the Emerald. “Presumably, the remedy for that would be to invalidate the actions of the commission.”

For its part, the state Supreme Court order says explicitly that the court “has not evaluated and does not render any opinion on the plan’s compliance with any statutory and conditional requirements other than the November 15 deadline.”

The obstacle public meetings issue could have been avoided if the state Supreme Court had scrapped the commission’s plan and created one of its own, as state law seemed to require. Instead, advocates are now setting their sights on what they see as a flawed work product, noting that commission members spent much of the Nov. 15 meeting in private discussions.

“If you have an invalid process, then you have an invalid outcome,” Fancher said. “The whole idea of the Open Meetings Act is that the public has a right to witness not only the final vote of a public agency but the deliberative process. That’s where public trust is born.”

Redistricting Justice for Washington (RJW), a coalition of community groups and nonprofits that wants to increase representation of BIPOC communities in voting districts, told the Emerald that the group is consulting with legal counsel and “seriously exploring” whether to bring a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as under public meetings laws.

An analysis by UCLA’s Voting Rights Project found that each of the four draft maps proposed earlier this year by members of the bipartisan commission would risk violating the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to adequately represent Latina and Latino voters in the Yakima Valley. RJW had proposed that the commission both create a majority-Latino/a district and combine areas of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation in order to increase representation.

“I think the whole process is disappointing and has failed communities across Washington, and especially Communities of Color,” said Andrew Hong, the group’s codirector. 

Nearer to Puget Sound, RJW proposed changes to the Ninth Congressional District boundaries to include much or all of White Center, Burien, Auburn, east Kent, and other “rapidly diversifying parts of the county and working class communities,” Hong said. Maps approved by the commission did not include those changes.

Margot Spindola, another RJW codirector and an organizer of the Latino Community Fund, criticized the lack of transparency around the process. 

“First, the commissioners told us they voted on a ‘framework,’ then they said it was a ‘redistricting plan,’ and then we learned that the chair of the commission didn’t see any maps until they were uploaded to their website a day past the deadline, according to her sworn declaration,” Spindola said in a statement. “But here’s what we do know: These maps are illegitimate, the process violated the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act, and independent analysis demonstrates they will violate the voting rights of Latinos in the Yakima Valley.” 

The Northwest Progessive Institute said Friday that the court’s order to greenlight the commission’s plan may in fact condemn it to further legal challenges.

“It was clear to anyone who watched the commission’s chaotic, disorganized meeting on Nov. 15 that it did not finish its work by the deadline,” the group’s founder and executive director, Andrew Villenueve, said in a statement. “Commissioners took a vote on maps that no one had seen, not even themselves, and then promptly congratulated themselves on having done a great job before concluding the following morning that they hadn’t finished on time.”

“The Supreme Court had an opportunity here to rectify this wrong, and make a good 10-year decision for our state, and sadly, it has declined to do so,” Villenueve added. “The justices may soon be asked to get involved again anyway in the event legal challenges are filed to these maps.”

At the local level, meanwhile, the King County Districting Committee is in the final stages of its own redistricting process. The committee published its latest proposed district map on Wednesday, Dec. 1, along with a separate map showing how the proposal compares to existing boundaries. The body is asking for public comments ahead of a scheduled meeting on Dec. 8.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Photo is attributed to Joe Mabel (under a Creative Commons, BY-SA 4.0 license).

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