The Oregon Supreme Court on Friday rejected an attempt by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to take control of redrawing legislative district lines, saying the Oregon Legislature could still draw the maps even though U.S. Census data is arriving late.
The ruling gives lawmakers three extra months to set the boundaries—and sets up what is likely to be a hurried and contentious struggle in the Legislature to draw maps by a Sept. 27 deadline.
"The Supreme Court has done its job," Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said in a joint statement. "Now it's time for the Legislature to do its constitutional duty: to redraw the district boundaries for the State of Oregon in a way that's fair and accurate. We have full faith in the legislative redistricting committees to lead this work."
The process, known as redistricting, will also draw new borders for state legislative districts, based on how many people live where.
The U.S. Census, hobbled by mismanagement and setbacks, has yet to release the population data that would let state lawmakers get to work. With the clock ticking toward the 2022 midterms, Fagan had sought to wrest control of the redistricting process and draw the maps using earlier numbers from Portland State University's Population Research Center. Courtney and Kotek opposed her plan at the Supreme Court.
The court rejected Fagan's proposal.
"We see substantial flaws in the Secretary's argument," the justices ruled. "For one, the Secretary concedes that census data is the best evidence of population, and she does not dispute the central role that Article IV, section 6, accords to federal census data in plan preparation. If it is possible to wait for that data and meet other constitutional requirements, then requiring the enactment or making of a plan without that data seems to fly in the face of the provisions of Article IV, section 6."
Fagan said she was satisfied with the ruling, in part because lawmakers would use PSU's numbers to start the process.
"Our agency's core objectives were to prevent moving the 2022 election dates and to preserve robust public input by starting the process with available population data," Fagan said in a statement. "We appreciate that the Oregon Supreme Court thoughtfully adopted both of our objectives. Representation matters and that is what redistricting is all about."
While Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, Republicans still cheered the ruling as their best shot at getting a say in the new boundaries.
"We have had a good working relationship among the Senate members of the committee," said Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) in a statement. "Election integrity and fair districts live to fight another day because of this decision. It ensures that we can continue to work together to ensure that Oregonians can pick their representatives fairly."
Meanwhile, the Legislature will also have to draw boundaries for its congressional delegation.
Oregon is expected to gain a sixth congressional seat after the census is completed, and lawmakers from both parties want a district their party is likely to win in an election. (Four of Oregon's five seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are currently held by Democrats.)
But that process—while featuring the same cast of characters—is governed by different deadlines, and today's ruling does not apply to it.