Democracy goes to court

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By Optic Editorial Board

It’s a flashback to 2001, when a judge had to decide redistricting then, too. Only this year it’s worse, because there’s even more disagreement this time around. And when the dust settles and the issue is resolved, once again the real winners will be the attorneys.

News out of Santa Fe is that a team of lawyers will defend the Democratic-controlled Legislature in a court fight over the redrawing of district lines for New Mexico’s congressional seats, the state House and Senate and the Public Regulation Commission. The Legislative Council voted along party lines to authorize the legal representation, with Republicans crying foul because, as Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle said, “If one side is going to get lawyers paid for, the other side should get it too.” In other words, we need more lawyers, not fewer, to jump into the fray.

Redistricting must occur every decade in response to population shifts uncovered by the U.S. Census. It’s a job for the state Legislature, but this year they couldn’t even get a congressional redistricting bill to the governor for signing (which she wouldn’t have done anyway).

Ten years ago, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature; it would have greatly changed the district boundaries and created a majority Hispanic district in southern New Mexico that favored Democrats. That too went to court, and a state judge rejected the legislative proposal and adopted a “least change” plan with only minor revisions to the existing congressional boundaries.

Back then, taxpayers paid more than $3 million in other legal fees, paying for lawyers representing then-Gov. Johnson, the lieutenant governor, groups of Democrats and Republicans, Native American tribes, Hispanic activists and others. Who knows what the tab will be this year.

We hate to see the taxpayers’ money spent so abundantly on lawyers just because everyone wants district boundaries that will increase their chances come election time. It would be nice if another “least change” plan could have been passed and signed into law this year, then we wouldn’t need all the lawyers. But, alas, democracy is messy, and expensive, and sometimes it costs dearly to find a resolution. Unfortunately, however, it seems that when the democratic process makes its way into court, the lawyers get the last laugh — all the way to the bank.