OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court said Thursday it won’t dive back into the fight over redistricting.
In a unanimous vote, justices declined two lawsuits that sought to toss out political maps because state redistricting commissioners negotiated in secret, purportedly in violation of open meeting laws.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government and Arthur West of Olympia, filers of the lawsuits, along with the Redistricting Commission and the state, the defendants, had collectively asked the Supreme Court to step in. They argued the state constitution allows the court to take on such cases.
But Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, in a pair of one-page orders, said the court “declines to exercise original jurisdiction.” The orders do not provide any reasons.
That means both lawsuits would now proceed in Thurston County Superior Court, where they were originally filed.
Joan Mell, an attorney for the open government coalition, called the orders “disappointing because it slows down the opportunity for a quick and certain remedy that won’t cost the public a lot of money.”
“It signals to the Superior Court that (Supreme Court justices) do not want to be the ones that do the redistricting,” she said. And it probably means a Superior Court judge “would be loath to invalidate the plans knowing the Supreme Court doesn’t want the job of redistricting.”
Zach Pekelis Jones, an attorney for the commission, declined to comment.
Thursday’s action appears to mean the new boundaries the commission approved for legislative and congressional districts — albeit after their appointed deadline — will go on to the Legislature.
Lawmakers may amend the maps within the first 30 days of the session by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. Any changes to individual districts may not exceed 2% of the total population.
The session starts Monday. Once the 30-day period ends, the new political maps will take effect and will be in force for a decade, starting with this year’s elections.
Thursday’s action marked another twist in the bizarre tale of the once-a-decade process of redrawing boundaries for Washington’s 10 congressional and 49 legislative districts.
The four voting members of the commission gathered at 7 p.m. Nov. 15, facing a deadline of 11:59 p.m. to approve final maps and resolutions, and send them to administrators of the state House and Senate.
While the meeting was conducted virtually and televised on TVW, the quartet — Democrats April Sims and Brady Walkinshaw Pinero, Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves — were themselves at a hotel.
In the course of the five-hour meeting, commissioners negotiated privately off-camera, in groups of two. There was no discussion or deliberation in public before they cast a series of votes to seemingly carry out their duties.
Turned out the commission didn’t finish on time. Under the state Constitution, the map-making chore automatically fell to the Supreme Court.
But on Dec. 3, justices, relying in part on an affidavit from the commission’s chair, concluded the panel “met the constitutional deadline and substantially complied with the statutory deadline” and should send its work to the Legislature.
Mell argued the court should take up the cases because a bounty of information had since surfaced.
“This Court has blessed Commission action that was blatantly nontransparent and incomplete by the requisite constitutional deadline that puts redistricting defects squarely before this Court,” she wrote in a court filing.