Four Republican former elected officials asked a court Monday to invalidate what they say is an “obvious, extreme, partisan gerrymander” of Oregon’s congressional district map.
The quartet filed their suit exactly two weeks after Oregon’s House and Senate, on strict party-line votes, approved a map creating Oregon’s new sixth congressional district and reshaping the other five in a way that is all but guaranteed to give Democrats five of the six seats. That 83% ratio far exceeds the 56% share of the votes Oregonians cast for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
The map splits two to three times as many counties, census tracts and even tiny block groups into different congressional districts than the map lawmakers created the last time they redrew districts to reflect new census figures, in 2011, the suit says.
And the four Republicans take particular issue with the redrawn version of the 5th District, now held by U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon City Democrat. As drawn by Democrats, it will extend from a small swath of outer southeast Portland all the way to Bend.
The lawsuit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court, claims that’s out of line with the state law requiring districts to be “connected by transportation links.” The district will stretch from Clackamas County across the Cascade Mountains, which “can be impassible during winter conditions,” it says.
Democratic lawmakers “knew and privately discussed with members of their own party on the House Redistricting Committee that the proposed map was obviously politically gerrymandered in the Democrats’ favor,” the suit claims, without citing evidence of such discussions.
The lawsuit asks the court to redraw the districts ahead of the 2022 election cycle and make the state pay the Republicans’ attorney’s fees. Under a new system lawmakers enacted in 2013, a five-judge panel appointed by Oregon’s supreme court chief justice will hear the case and, if convinced the petitioners are correct, redraw the lines.
Oregon law says “no district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring any political party, incumbent legislator or other person.”
But Oregon courts have set a high bar for proving that maps are impermissibly drawn to benefit certain politicians or a political party.
The Oregon Supreme Court, presented with a similar court challenge in 2001 to then-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury’s Democrat-favoring plan, dismissed the critics’ lawsuit on these grounds: “It may be true that, in some circumstances, this court could infer from a record that a Secretary of State had the purpose of favoring one particular political party over another. However, the mere fact that a particular reapportionment may result in a shift in political control … — and that is all that petitioners point to on this record — falls short of demonstrating such a purpose.”
During discussions of the proposed map during committee meetings and floor debates leading up to Democrats’ unanimous “yes” votes, Democratic lawmakers said over the over that the congressional map was drawn using the required criteria, including forming contiguous districts with almost precisely the same number of residents, keeping together communities of interest and ensuring that transportation corridors link different parts of each district.
The four Republicans who filed suit Monday are former state lawmaker and former appointed Secretary of State Bev Clarno, former House Speaker Larry Campbell, former House Republican Leader Gary Wilhelms and former Mayor of The Dalles James Wilcox.
Lawyer Shawn Lindsay, a former Republican lawmaker who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the other former officeholders, did not immediately respond to questions about how the legal team plans to overcome that Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hartung v. Bradbury.
Misha Tseytlin, a Chicago-based lawyer who has represented Republicans in high-profile cases, also plans to make Republicans’ case in the Oregon map challenge.
The lawsuit cites House Speaker Tina Kotek’s decision to renege on a deal she struck with House Republicans to achieve a political advantage for Democrats in exchange for giving Republicans equal say on the House redistricting committee as another piece of evidence the maps are illegally partisan.
Scott Moore, chief of staff for the House Democratic caucus, did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday afternoon.
An Oregonian/OregonLive analysis found the map Democrats enacted creates three super-safe Democratic seats, one super-safe Republican seat, one seat that tilts in Democrats’ favor and one seat that is a virtual 50-50 tie in terms of how its voters have sided in key Republican-Democratic match-ups since 2015.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Lake Oswego Democrat who took the lead in pushing the new congressional map through the House, has since told fellow lawmakers she plans to run for Congress in the newly drawn 6th District, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last week.
The lawsuit says the new map “harms” the four former elected officials “by frustrating their ability to vote for and campaign for congressional candidates who share their values, and who share their views on issues such as gun rights, transportation, and water rights.”
It also says “the gerrymandered map relegates petitioners’ votes, issues and favored congressional candidates to obscurity in many parts of the state.”
Clarno, in a statement, said, “Oregon Democrats broke their word to their fellow legislators and then broke the law. Oregon law has very clear protections against partisan gerrymandering that our legislature chose to violate. My hope is that the judges reviewing this case will uphold the law, say no to gerrymandering, and say yes to the fair representation Oregonians deserve.”
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby was quick to lend her support: “Gerrymandering is cheating,” she said in a statement. “Oregon Democrats want a map that protects incumbents and silences the voices of Oregonians. This challenge is an opportunity for the courts to fix the political gerrymandering and create maps that truly represent Oregon.”
Read the full article on Oregon Live.