High-priced lawyers pleading on behalf of political-party insiders before a panel of five little-known judges -- that was the scene at the state Judicial Center on Wednesday.
The topic was one of the biggest political decisions of the next decade: redistricting, the decennial postcensus adjustment of congressional and legislative district boundaries to equalize their populations.
What was striking -- and disappointing -- was how unlike a legislative hearing Wednesday's proceedings were. The state Constitution says redistricting is supposed to be the work of the Legislature and the governor.
But in Minnesota this year -- and in three of the previous four postcensus years -- a lawmaking impasse has led to abrogation of that duty, and to the courts taking charge.
The result this year is a legal process dominated by political insiders and devoid of public input when it counts -- after proposed maps are available for public inspection.
That's the process Minnesota appears stuck with in 2012. The judicial panel will issue new maps on Feb. 21 if the governor and Legislature can't agree by then. Frankly, they are not even trying. A better way ought to be found by 2022, but more about that later.
Three maps -- one Republican, one DFL and one by a rump group of "progressive" DFLers -- were subjected to fulsome review Wednesday by seasoned partisan litigators. Those lawyers expect their compensation to come eventually from the taxpayers at court order.
But political parties and donors are likely fronting fees that exceeded $50,000 the last time this work was done, 10 years ago.
Two other maps were also submitted to the court, one from a League of Women Voters-sponsored bipartisan commission called Draw the Line, the other by a county auditors' elections committee led by Ramsey County's Joe Mansky.
Those maps weren't given high-level scrutiny Wednesday. They were low-budget input, offered as testimony during the court panel's public hearings last fall, before the parties offered their plans.
Here's hoping those two alternatives won't escape the judges' attention. They contain several features we believe Minnesotans would prefer to the three partisan approaches.
They are less tilted toward one party's advantage, fairer to minority populations and less disruptive of long-established configurations.
Weaknesses we see in the three maps examined in court Wednesday include these:
• The Republican congressional map needlessly alters at least century-old political patterns in Greater Minnesota. It creates what attorney (and former Minnesota Chief Justice) Eric Magnuson called an "Up North" Eighth District that runs from the Red River valley to Lake Superior, and a First District that sprawls from Winona to Big Stone. In those east-west oriented districts, Duluth and Rochester would be dominant, at western Minnesota's expense.
• The DFL map combines St. Paul with an array of east-metro suburbs that are demographically dissimilar to the capital city. That puts the state's two female members of Congress -- DFLer Betty McCollum and Republican Michele Bachmann -- into the same district. Such high-profile pairings aren't by themselves reasons to reject a map. But they ought to signal the judges to take a second look at the justification for the change.
• All three partisan maps keep St. Cloud in a Sixth District that runs to the Wisconsin state line, to the detriment of both that city's residents and the fast-growing northern metro suburbs. The Draw the Line plan has a better idea, drawn from citizen input: Put St. Cloud in the Seventh District.
• The Republican and, to a lesser extent, the DFL legislative maps smack of incumbent protectionism. An analysis by Common Cause Minnesota points to the GOP state House map as the worst offender. It goes out of its way to add more GOP voters to the districts of seven House Republicans who won by narrow margins in 2010.
• Common Cause also faulted the DFL map for creating a relatively small number of politically competitive state Senate districts -- 20 of 67, compared with 27 in the Draw the Line plan.
• The Draw the Line map also created many more so-called "minority opportunity" districts than any of the three partisan plans did, by refusing to split concentrations of nonwhite population into multiple districts.
• The superior features of the auditors' and Draw the Line maps underscore the point that a bipartisan group of elder statesmen has been making for several years: Politicians aren't good at fairly drawing their own districts.
Minnesota needs a new approach to redistricting. The Legislature ought to start the process by turning the mapmaking over to a nonpartisan citizens commission -- say a panel of retired judges, charged with collecting ample citizen input.
Such a commission's handiwork would get a thorough public airing before coming back to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote, and to the governor for his signature.
That process could be repeated up to three times before an impasse would be declared and the courts would be required to step in. Court action would still be a fail-safe backstop.
But it would not be the default process now so easily chosen -- to the detriment of citizen involvement -- when the Legislature and the governor disagree.