The U.S. Supreme Court has hit the brakes on an effort to dramatically alter how Oregon draws its legislative and congressional districts.
In a ruling Tuesday, the court granted an emergency stay that will halt, for now, a push by government watchdog groups and industry players to land a measure on the November ballot placing authority for those districts in the hands of a nonpartisan commission.
The stay, which Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum requested from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan last month, is the latest step in a dramatic legal saga over the ballot campaign, known as “People Not Politicians.” In July, the coalition successfully argued that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it faced an undue burden in collecting enough signatures to land its measure on the November ballot.
So even though it had far too few signatures to qualify, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane ruled that the group should face a lower standard. He ordered Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno to either place the measure on the ballot or change the rules so that backers have a much lower signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.
Clarno chose the latter option, meaning the People Not Politicians campaign got an extended deadline and needed to turn in fewer than 59,000 signatures to qualify — a far cry from the 150,000 needed in normal times.
Rosenblum appealed the ruling, though Clarno hadn’t asked her to, and when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to issue an emergency stay on the order, Rosenblum took her case to Kagan.
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.”
The Supreme Court has now agreed.
“The application for stay presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is granted,” the order says. It says McShane’s rulings will be “stayed pending disposition of the appeal …” The order also suggests that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor “would deny” the state’s application for a stay.
The ruling could doom the redistricting measure. In order for the proposal to move forward, the appeals court will have to decide on the case. If it rules against Rosenblum, the Supreme Court would need to decide whether or not to take up the matter. The substance and timing of those decisions will dictate whether the measure moves forward.
Norman Turrill, a chief petitioner and campaign chair behind the proposal, said in a statement his coalition will press on.
“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 August 13,” the statement said. “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.”
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 business organizations that are politically close to Republicans and government watchdog groups. The two chief sponsors represent the Oregon League of Women Voters and the Oregon Farm Bureau.
This story may be updated.