Oregon attorney general takes fight against redistricting initiative to US Supreme Court

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
July 29, 2020 10:28 p.m. Updated: July 30, 2020 2:56 p.m.

A federal judge earlier ruled in favor of a lower signature threshold to qualify for the ballot, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In this July 8, 2020, file photo the Supreme Court is shown in Washington.

In this July 8, 2020, file photo the Supreme Court is shown in Washington, D.C. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is appealing a decision regarding an anti-gerrymandering initiative petition to the nation's high court.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum intensified her legal battle Wednesday against a ballot measure that would put the redrawing of political district lines into the hands of a nonpartisan commission.


Rosenblum asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan to issue an emergency stay blocking attempts to put the measure on the November ballot in Oregon.

In her legal filing with the nation’s high court, Rosenblum said U.S. District Judge Michael McShane erred when he issued a July 10 ruling that gave the anti-gerrymandering measure a clear path to the ballot. McShane said the state needed to lower its signature threshold because the pandemic made it too hard for the proposed constitutional amendment to qualify.

McShane’s ruling “encroaches on the state’s sovereign authority to determine for itself the process by which its own constitution can be amended,” Rosenblum wrote. “Changing the rules for initiatives by judicial fiat, this late in the election cycle only for one privileged measure, is legally unsupportable and fundamentally unfair.”


While the matter of drawing district lines may seem arcane, it could have a big impact on political power in Oregon. Currently, the Oregon Legislature redraws congressional and legislative district lines to account for population changes.

Following the 2020 Census, Democrats in the Legislature and governor’s office are poised to have sole control over those changes for the first time in modern Oregon history. Control over redistricting could help Democrats maintain their three-fifths supermajority in the Legislature, which allows them to raise taxes without needing Republican votes. It also helps give Democrats a better shot at winning a new congressional seat that Oregon is expected to get after redistricting.

The redistricting measure is sponsored by a coalition of government watchdog groups and business organizations that are politically close to Republicans. The two chief sponsors represent the Oregon League of Women Voters and the Oregon Farm Bureau.

McShane cut the needed number of voter signatures from nearly 150,000 to just under 59,000 and extended the normal deadline for gathering them from July 3 to Aug. 17.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican, accepted McShane’s decision and said she would place the measure on the ballot if it meets the new signature threshold. Clarno’s office said that she “did not request the appeal; Attorney General Rosenblum has made the decision on her own authority as chief legal officer.”

Rosenblum, a Democrat, moved forward with an appeal listing Clarno as the “nominal defendant” while saying that the attorney general can “intervene in defense of the constitutionality of the state law.”

A three-judge panel for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused Rosenblum’s request for an emergency stay of McShane’s decision and has scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 13 on whether to overturn his decision.

In her filing with the Supreme Court, Rosenblum said it is unclear whether the 9th Circuit would act before the state needs to finalize the ballot for the November election. Rosenblum’s filing said that after Aug. 28, it “will be extraordinarily difficult” to make changes.