SANTA FE, NM (AP) — Attorneys for Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to dismiss a Republican challenge to a congressional map dividing a politically conservative region of the state.
The case is one of several court battles in states from Kentucky to Utah relating to U.S. House districts enacted by state legislatures and alleged constitutional violations.
Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said the court will take an advisory approach after hours of oral arguments heavily guided by questions from the judges, allowing time without a deadline to reach a decision.
The Republican Party and several other plaintiffs have accused Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico of dividing the southeast corner of the state — an oil-producing region and Republican stronghold — into three districts “for sheer political gain.”
The case has implications for the 2nd congressional district, where Democrat Gabe Vasquez ousted incumbent US Rep. Yvette Herrell in November. The majority Hispanic district currently stretches from the US-Mexico border through desert oil fields and parts of Albuquerque.
Sara Sanchez, an attorney for leading Democratic lawmakers, urged the Supreme Court on Monday to uphold the new congressional maps and stay away from a “political thicket,” arguing that state law gives the legislature and governor broad powers to make political decisions to draw boundaries.
“This has to be an extreme situation” for the judiciary to intervene in redistribution of the districts, Sanchez said. “It’s a political process, someone’s ox is gored. And every time someone doesn’t get the political shake up they wanted in their district, they’re going to face this court. … I would suggest a horizontal bar.”
Daniel Gallegos, who represents the Republican Party and allied plaintiffs, said the new congressional card violated traditional redistribution standards that have prevailed for the past three decades. He said it would be unfair to be so quick to block access to a judicial review in a state district court.
“Our only option would be to go back to them (the legislature) and expect that the political process will work,” Gallegos said.
Clovis-based District Judge Fred Van Soelen in April paved the way for Republicans to question the new congressional map, barring immediate changes that could have disrupted the 2022 midterm election.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading Democratic lawmakers then called on the Supreme Court to step in and uphold their by-election plan.
They say new boundaries to the state’s three congressional districts have been adequately reviewed through the political process to ensure more competitive districts that reflect population shifts with respect for Native American communities.
In a related legal battle before the US Supreme Court in Washington, judges are considering a challenge that would leave state legislatures virtually unchecked when setting rules for congressional and presidential elections. Arguments were presented in December.
North Carolina Republicans who brought this case to the Supreme Court argue that a provision of the U.S. Constitution known as the Election Clause gives state legislatures virtually complete control over the “time, place, and manner” of congressional elections, including the re-election of constituencies.
That means taking the state courts out of the process, they say. State courts have become the only legal forum for challenging congressional party cards since the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that these lawsuits cannot be brought in federal courts.
The stakes are high in this case because Republicans won a narrow majority in the House of Representatives in the November 2022 election, giving them just enough power to challenge President Joe Biden’s agenda. Any decision that results in some districts being redrawn would likely go into effect for the 2024 election.
In New Mexico, the Democrats won all three congressional elections in November. They control every nationwide elected office, command majorities in the House and Senate, and form the five-member Supreme Court.
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