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Democrats missed chance to redraw district lines

Nevada Democrats in the legislature are affecting anger over a possible Republican plan to redistrict and reapportion districts six years early.

Nevada Democratic Party executive director Michael Sargeant was quoted this way: “The Nevada Constitution is clear: It only authorizes redistricting in the year following the decennial Census. That already occurred in 2011, when a nonpartisan process created fair and highly competitive districts for both Congress and the Legislature. Any move to redraw districts now would be clearly unconstitutional and illegal.”

First of all, the constitution requires redistricting after the census, but it doesn’t forbid it at other times. This is how it reads: “It shall be the mandatory duty of the Legislature at its first session after the taking of the decennial census of the United States in the year 1950, and after each subsequent decennial census, to fix by law the number of Senators and Assemblymen, and apportion them among the several counties of the State, or among legislative districts which may be established by law, according to the number of inhabitants in them, respectively.”

Second, the executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party seems not to know that Democrats considered going to court to overturn that “non­partisan” and “fair” redistricting imposed by a Carson City judge. And a Democratic secretary of state did go to court to try to do something about it.

Here’s what happened:

The 2011 Nevada Legislature, in a dispute with a vetoing Gov. Brian Sandoval, ended up running out of time during the 120­-day legislature. The legislators adjourned for the year without completing redistricting or reapportioning. That left the old districts in place, and they had changed so much in 10 years that they were effectively malapportioned.

That prompted a lawsuit that ended up in the courtroom of state court Judge Todd Russell, son of former Republican Gov. Charles Russell. It was expected that the court would order a special session of the Legislature (or order the governor to call one) to continue working on redistricting, because no one except the legislators has the authority under the Nevada Constitution to do so (see language above).

Instead, Russell seized control of the process, appointed his own people to redistrict/reapportion, and used a court order from himself to impose his new plan on the state.

It was an outrageous case of Black Robe Disease. Sandoval took no leadership role, but there was outrage elsewhere.

Las Vegas Review­-Journal: “Gov. Sandoval has expressed confidence in Judge Russell. The judge has given us no reason to be so optimistic.”

Las Vegas Sun: “Russell should have sent the matter back to the Legislature, where it belongs, but instead has concocted an odd plan, appointing three ‘special masters’ with no particular experience in the complexities of redistricting to draw the maps.”

Nevada Chief Justice Nancy Saitta fired a warning shot across Russell’s bow, sending him a letter, but raising only questions of time, not legality, which he turned aside.

The League of Women Voters filed a brief accusing Russell of ignoring redistricting precedents.

Both political parties threatened to take Russell’s plan (which settled the differences between the governor and the Democratic legislature in favor of the Democrats) to the Nevada Supreme Court but lost their nerve.

It is true that tradition sensibly favors redistricting only once every 10 years and that a Tom DeLay­-engineered extra redistricting in Texas in 2003 was a scandal. But in this case in Nevada, the first order of business for the 2013 Nevada Legislature — which was controlled by the Democrats — should have been redistricting to correct Russell’s usurpation of legislative authority and to quash his tainted districts.

Since that session failed to act, Democrats have no reason to criticize the 2015 Legislature for moving ahead with it, particularly since they supported the notion in the first place.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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