The Washington Supreme Court will not exercise its authority to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative district maps, leaving in place the work of the bipartisan redistricting commission.
In a unanimous ruling Friday, the court found the commission had substantially met its legal obligations by voting on a map framework just before the midnight Nov. 15 deadline — despite the fact that the panel did not reveal its maps publicly before the vote and with acknowledgment that work on completing the maps continued after the deadline.
The court’s ruling, which drew criticism from some political activists, was out of deference to the Legislature, whose Democratic and Republican caucus leaders appointed the four voting members of the redistricting commission.
“Redistricting raises largely political questions best addressed in the first instance by commissioners appointed by the legislative caucuses where negotiation and compromise is necessary for agreement,” wrote Chief Justice Steven González in a five-page court order, adding that “the primary purpose of achieving a timely redistricting plan would be impeded, not advanced, by rejecting the Commission’s completed work.”
The decision lifts some uncertainty over the new boundaries for the state’s 10 congressional districts and 49 legislative districts, which will be in place for the next decade, beginning with the 2022 midterm elections.
But the court order does not shut the door on legal challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act or other laws. Some voting-rights activists have said the commission fell short of creating a Central Washington legislative district giving majority Latinos enough clout to elect their favored candidates.
The court order said it “has not evaluated and does not render any opinion on the plan’s compliance with any statutory and constitutional requirements other than the November 15 deadline.”
Redistricting Justice for Washington, a coalition of progressive groups advocating for underrepresented communities, said in a news release it plans to “pursue multiple lines of legal action” to challenge the commission maps.
In statements Friday, some leaders of that coalition strongly criticized the court’s decision to accept the commission’s work, citing both the equity issues and the lack of transparency.
“We hoped that the Supreme Court would recognize that these maps violated the law and unjustly diluted community voices here in Yakima,” said Giovanni Severino, a Yakima organizer with Progreso: Latino Progress.
Kamau Chege, director of Washington Community Alliance, said the commission “lacks credibility and their final maps are a stain on our democracy that can’t be ignored. Washingtonians deserve better.”
But legislative leaders generally praised the court decision for bringing the redistricting process to a timely close.
State House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said in a statement the ruling “provides certainty going forward for the people and communities of our state.”
State Senate Republican leader John Braun, of Centralia, said in a statement while he didn’t agree with every aspect of the new maps, “it is a compromise that was reached through a transparent Democratic process. The Supreme Court made the right decision to accept the plan as-is.”
The mapmaking authority had legally fallen to the court after the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission failed to meet its Nov. 15 deadline to agree on boundaries.
In a chaotic five-hour virtual meeting, during which the commissioners stayed out of public view most of the time, the commission rushed to vote minutes before the deadline on map agreements that were neither publicly posted nor publicly debated. And votes on submitting the plans to the Legislature were taken after the midnight deadline.
Some government experts said the commission’s actions violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. Arthur West, an activist and frequent filer of public-records lawsuits, has sued the commission in Thurston County Superior Court seeking to void the maps.
Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the organization is also “highly likely” to sue, with a decision to be made on Monday.
The commission acknowledged its failure to finish the entirety of its work by the deadline, but forwarded its belatedly agreed-to map proposals to the court, urging the justices to adopt the maps, citing the months of public testimony and work that had gone into them.
In a statement on Twitter, the commission praised the court’s decision, saying it would “carefully review the decision and update the public on next steps soon.”
The court order directed that the redistricting commission complete “any remaining tasks necessary” to finish its work. That will include a final report to the state Legislature, which can make small tweaks to the commission maps with a two-thirds vote of both chambers.
The new congressional maps for 2022 leave the same essential split of three clearly Republican-leaning and six Democratic-leaning districts, and leaves the 8th Congressional District as swing territory.
Some Democrats had hoped the commission would shore up the political fortunes of 8th District incumbent Rep. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win the seat, helping the party take a majority in the House of Representatives.
But the new map leaves the partisan split in the district roughly the same, growing slightly less Democratic-leaning based on recent election results.
Schrier already faces at least three Republican challengers, including King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, tech manager and Army Ranger combat veteran Jesse Jensen and attorney Matt Larkin.
The new 8th District will still run from eastern King and Pierce Counties across the Cascade Mountains to Kittitas and Chelan counties. It will pick up some new territory, extending north to portions of Snohomish County along the Highway 2 corridor.