SANTA FE, N.M. – Attorneys for Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico urged the state Supreme Court on Monday to dismiss a Republican challenge to a congressional map that divvies up a politically conservative region of the state.
The case is one of several court battles in states from Kentucky to Utah regarding U.S. House districts enacted by state legislatures and alleged constitutional violations.
Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said the court would take a deliberative approach, setting aside time with no deadline to forge a decision, after hourlong oral arguments guided heavily by questions from justices.
The Republican Party and several other plaintiffs have accused Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico of breaking up the southeastern corner of the state — an oil-producing region and Republican stronghold — into three districts “for raw political gain.”
The case holds implications for the 2nd Congressional District where Democrat Gabe Vasquez in November ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell. The majority-Hispanic district currently stretches from the U.S. border with Mexico across desert oilfields and portions of Albuquerque.
Sara Sanchez, an attorney for leading Democratic legislators, urged the high court Monday to uphold the new congressional maps and steer clear of a “political thicket," arguing that state law provides the legislature and governor with broad authority to draw political boundaries.
“This has to be an extreme situation," for the judiciary to intervene in redistricting, Sanchez said. "It’s a political process, somebody’s ox is being gored. And if every time someone didn't get the political shakes that they wanted in their district, they’re going to come to this court. ... I would suggest a high bar.”
Daniel Gallegos, representing the Republican Party and allied plaintiffs, said the new congressional map flouts traditional standards of redistricting that held sway over the past three decades. He said it would be unfair to block access to judicial review in state district court so soon.
“Our only option would be to go back to them (at the Legislature) and expect that the political process is going to work out,” Gallegos said.
Clovis-based District Judge Fred Van Soelen in April cleared the way for Republicans to challenge the new congressional map, while barring immediate changes that might have disrupted the 2022 midterm election.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading Democratic legislators then asked the Supreme Court to intervene and preserve their redistricting plan.
They say new boundaries to the state's three congressional districts were vetted appropriately through the political process to ensure more competitive districts that reflect population shifts, with deference to Native American communities.
In related litigation at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, justices are considering a challenge that would leave state legislatures virtually unchecked in making rules for congressional and presidential elections. Arguments were presented in December.
Republicans from North Carolina who brought that case to the high court argue that a provision of the U.S. Constitution known as the elections clause gives state lawmakers virtually total control over the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, including redistricting.
That means cutting state courts out of the process, they say. State courts have become the only legal forum for challenging partisan congressional maps since the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that those lawsuits cannot be brought in federal court.
The stakes in that case are high because Republicans won only a slim House majority in the November 2022 elections, giving them just enough power to challenge President Joe Biden’s agenda. Any ruling that causes some districts to be redrawn likely would kick in for the 2024 elections.
In New Mexico, Democrats won all three congressional contests in November. They control every statewide elected office, command majorities in the state House and Senate, and make up the five-member Supreme Court.