Justices hear arguments in appeal case on redistricting

Suit follows lower court ruling holding that GOP failed to provide ‘sufficient evidence’ Democrats succeeded in entrenching party

By Robert Nott rnott@sfnewmexican.com



Santa Fe New Mexican



The lawmaker who sponsored legislation redrawing congressional districts in New Mexico said he is confident the state’s highest court will uphold the map and declare it meets legislative and constitutional requirements. “Our map has seen the utmost scrutiny the New Mexico judiciary can deliver,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, after a Supreme Court hearing Monday on whether Senate Bill 1, approved in a special session in late 2021, was a deliberate Democratic effort to gerrymander the 2nd Congressional District to ensure Democrats would hold an advantage there. The five justices, all Democrats, heard arguments from attorneys representing the Republican Party of New Mexico and other plaintiffs, who had appealed a lower court ruling on their January 2022 lawsuit challenging the congressional map, and Democratic leaders in the state named as defendants. The hearing lasted just over an hour. Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon said the court would rule on the appeal as soon as possible. State District Judge Fred Van Soelen ruled Oct. 6 in favor of the Democratic defendants following a two-day bench trial in Lovington. The Republican plaintiffs appealed the ruling a few days after it was issued. While Democrats “succeeded in substantially diluting their opponents’ votes” by dividing the GOP’s stronghold in southeastern New Mexico, Van Soelen ruled, the plaintiffs did not provide “sufficient evidence that the defendants were successful in their attempt to entrench their party” in the district. State Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, one of the plaintiffs, didn’t listen to Monday’s hearing but said, “I hope [the justices] are going to be fair and consider the argument.” State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce did not comment on the hearing. Ash Soular, a spokeswoman for the state GOP, wrote in an email Monday the party “has not determined a further course of action at this time” if it loses the appeal. U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, a Democrat from Las Cruces, beat Republican Yvette Herrell in the 2022 election for the 2nd Congressional District seat by about 1,300 votes after the district was reshaped to include portions of Albuquerque — and about 40,000 additional Democratic voters. Herrell has said she plans to run again in 2024 to reclaim her seat. States are required to redraw legislative and congressional election districts every 10 years based on new U.S. census data. The stakes are high, as redistricting can determine which party holds power in the state and in Congress. The effort in New Mexico has often ended up in the court system, with the minority party alleging partisan gerrymandering. Despite Van Soelen’s ruling, Attorney Carter B. Harrison IV, who represents the Republican plaintiffs, argued Monday the new congressional district map was drawn ensure the odds in the 2nd District, where Republicans often have won congressional races, were stacked in Democrats’ favor for years to come. He wrote in his appeal the district boundaries will make it “impossible for the disfavored party to win” in an election. Sara Sanchez, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued Van Soelen’s ruling should stand because the plaintiffs did not provide evidence to back their claim regarding entrenchment. Several justices questioned the meaning of “entrenchment” in redistricting and asked whether there was a judicial definition. Harrison acknowledged there was no independent analysis of what entrenchment means but said it “doesn’t mean it becomes impossible” for the minority party candidate to win. Bacon — like other judges and political analysts — said there is bound to be room in every redistricting effort for some gerrymandering. “Being in the minority position, your clients want it to be politically neutral, but that is simply not a system we have for political gerrymandering,” she said. There are no laws to ensure any redistricting plan “is neutral,” she added. Harrison declined to comment after the hearing. State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, an attorney who attended Monday’s hearing, said he “foresees the court moving pretty quickly” with a ruling. Whatever the court decides will be the last word on the case. If the court rules in favor of the appellants, the Legislature will have to draw a new map during the next regular session or will need to convene a special session, Ivey-Soto said.