U.S. Supreme Court Sides With State in Battle Over Whether Redistricting Measure Can Quality for November Ballot

The Oregon Department of Justice asked the top court to halt a lower injunction that lowered hurdle for IP 57 to qualify.

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a stay in the battle over whether Initiative Petition 57, which would change the way Oregon redraws legislative boundaries, could qualify for the November ballot.

The probable effect of the stay is that Secretary of State Bev Clarno will not have to place IP 57 on the November ballot.

Supporters of IP 57, which include Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and business groups, recognized in late June they would fall far short of the 149,360 valid signatures needed by July 2 to qualify their amendment of the Oregon Constitution for the November ballot.

Their political action committee, People Not Politicians, sued Clarno, the state’s top elections officer, in federal court, arguing that COVID-19 made it impossible to collect the signatures in time.

The underlying issue, how legislative and congressional district boundaries are redrawn, is a matter of great consequence. Redistricting happens only once a decade, following the U.S. Census. Currently, a legislative committee redraws the lines, but if lawmakers cannot agree, the secretary of state takes up the pen. Critics say the process, which can result in gerrymandered districts favoring the party in power, is a boon for Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Oregon by about 10 percentage points. People Not Politicians wants to replace the current  system with a 12-member, bipartisan panel.

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane ruled in People Not Politicians’ favor July 10.

McShane gave Clarno two options: She could accept the signatures People Not Politicians had collected or give the group until Aug. 17 to collect 58,789 valid signatures. Clarno chose the latter option. The much lower bar would have made it easy for IP 57 to qualify for the ballot.

That’s when things got more interesting. Clarno decided not to appeal McShane’s decision. But Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, whose agency represents the state in litigation, decided to move forward with an appeal anyway. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, the co-owner of WW‘s parent company.)

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined July 23 to grant a motion by the Oregon Department of Justice to halt signature gathering while the court considered the merits of the state’s objections.

Related: Federal Appeals Court Denies State’s Motion to Halt Signature Gathering for Redistricting Measure

On July 29, the state then filed an application for a stay with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to prevent McShane’s order from going into effect while the 9th Circuit deliberated. People Not Politicians opposed that application.

But this morning, the nation’s top court granted the stay the DOJ sought. Oregon Public Broadcasting first reported the ruling.

“The district court’s July 10 and July 13, 2020, orders granting a preliminary injunction are stayed pending disposition of the appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is timely sought,” Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote.

It remains possible the 9th Circuit could rule in People Not Politicians’ favor,  but the DOJ then has the option of appealing to the Supreme Court. The clock is ticking on that legal process—Clarno will begin mailing out early ballots Aug. 26.

Kathay Feng of Common Cause said on behalf of People Not Politicians that the fight isn’t over.

“The People Not Politicians campaign is committed to putting Oregonians, not public officials with a clear conflict of interest, at the center of the next redistricting process,” Feng said in a statement.

“People Not Politicians prevailed in federal district court, and we will be defending Oregonian voters’ First Amendment rights during our scheduled oral argument in the 9th Circuit on Aug. 13. Our coalition will continue doing everything in our power to put this vital democracy reform on the ballot in November and ensure there is a path for redistricting reform in Oregon in 2021.”

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