Judge rejects use of redistricting special master

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A state judge on Tuesday rejected a proposal by Gov. Susana Martinez and other Republicans to use a court-appointed special master to draw new boundaries for congressional, legislative and other elected office districts in New Mexico.

The first trial on redistricting will start in early December.

District Judge James Hall said a special master could increase the time and expense of resolving the once-a-decade task of redistricting rather than making it more efficient as the governor and her allies contend.

"On the surface, it appears logical that the appointment of a special master might streamline the proceedings in that the proposed maps created by the special master would be the focus of any review by the court," Hall wrote. "In reality, delegating certain responsibilities to a special master inserts additional procedural steps to already complex litigation."

Hall is sticking with his previously announced schedule for handling lawsuits brought by groups of Republicans, Democrats and Indian tribes. A four-day trial on congressional redistricting begins Dec. 5. Trials on the state House, state Senate and Public Regulation Commission would be held later in December and in January.

Hall plans to wrap up redistricting with a three-day hearing on the PRC, which would start Jan. 11.

Republicans had contended a special master, such as a demographer, could prepare politically neutral maps for Hall to consider in deciding how to adjust district boundaries for population shifts during the past decade. Democrats and Indian tribes opposed the special master proposal, arguing it would add delays and increase legal costs.

Ten years ago, taxpayers were forced to pay nearly $4 million for the legal expenses of redistricting.

The outcome of redistricting is politically important because the makeup of districts can give an edge to either Democrats or Republicans, potentially influencing the outcome of elections for the next 10 years.

The legal requirement is to equalize populations in districts as much as possible to ensure the votes of all New Mexicans are worth the same, regardless of where they live.

Redistricting landed in court after Martinez vetoed Democratic-backed plans for the House, Senate and PRC that passed the Legislature. She contended the proposals were inconsistent with the legal requirements of one person, one vote because they packed Republicans in some districts while leaving the populations too low in Democratic-leaning districts.

Hall said it would be difficult to find a truly neutral special master and there would be delays and likely disputes over the instructions given to the appointee as guidance in drawing district maps for the court to consider. He said lawyers eventually would be able to present their own maps as alternatives to the ones proposed by the special master.

"Ultimately, the inclusion of a special master may simply lead to more potential issues for appeal," said Hall, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to handle the redistricting cases.

He suggested that those involved in the lawsuits could hold down legal costs by avoiding duplication and working together to select experts they plan to use at trial. Groups with multiple attorneys, he said, should have just one lawyer appear in court when possible.