Editorial: Credit judges for fair representation

  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 6:58 PM

Minnesota should give them a permanent role in redistricting.


St. Paul, MN., Monday, 4/23/2001. (center) Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Redistricting, Senator Dave Kleis explained the Senate Republicans first redistricting plan for the state. The plan changes the boundaries for Minnesota's eight congressional diesticts by joining the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul into one urban district. At right was Senator Tom Neuvill who along with Senators Bill Belanger and Tom Neuville (both not pictured) gave presentations on the redistricting plan. Senate Republicans proposed their legisaltive and/or congressional redistricting plan. This is the first reapportionment proposal to emerge since the Census Bureau numbers arrived a few weeks ago.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Stillwater has been divorced from St. Cloud and attached to St. Paul. The south-suburban Second Congressional District is now the southeast-suburban and exurban Second. Mankato and Rochester remain paired in the "I-90" First. The Third appears to be safer Republican territory.

And if U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann wants to live in the Sixth District, which she's represented in Congress since 2006, she'll need to move. (She need not do so to stand for reelection, however: Members of Congress are not required to be residents of districts they represent.)

That's some of what the Minnesota judiciary's Special Redistricting Panel wrought Tuesday in maps that, barring a successful legal challenge, will govern the state's political geography for the next 10 years.

Politicians and pundits will spend the next several days pondering the maps' implications. Our first-blush assessment is largely positive.

To its credit, the panel opted for minimal changes in well-established political patterns -- rejecting, for example, a Republican proposal to put the entire northern third of the state into a single district. It kept rural parts of the state distinct from the metro area. The legislative map allows for a record-high 19 "minority opportunity" districts, with at least 30 percent of their voting-age population nonwhite.

At the Capitol, legislators in both parties -- not just one -- winced over 24 "pairings" of incumbents. Twenty-three districts -- 16 in the House, eight in the Senate -- are now home to two sitting legislators. Eleven of the pairings are GOP vs. GOP; eight are DFL vs. DFL, and five are DFL vs. GOP.

That mix speaks well of the even-handedness of the five-judge panel's work, befitting their mixed political pedigrees. Two were appointed by Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, one by DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich and one each by Republican Govs. Arne Carlson and Tim Pawlenty.

This page supported the preference voiced by St. Cloud residents at a citizens' commission hearing last fall for their fast-growing city to be separated from the metro area and attached to the Seventh District, where it sat in previous years.

The redistricting panel did not agree, and opted instead to sever southern Washington County from the Sixth District. The judges seemed to be saying that St. Cloud's future is more closely tied to the metro area than to northwestern Minnesota. It's hard to fault that presumption.

Yesterday was the fourth time in five decades that Minnesotans looked to the courts, not legislators and the governor, to equalize district populations after the decennial census. That's happened because legislatures and governors of opposite parties have been unable to agree on maps of their own design. Only in 1992, and then only because of a botched veto, did a map drawn by the Legislature become law.

Assigning redistricting to the judicial branch is less than ideal. Judges are schooled in law, not demography and cartography. Though this year's panel made a concerted effort to collect citizen input, judicial proceedings are typically less inclusive and accountable than those of the Legislature. Courtrooms are places where those who can afford high-priced representation have an edge.

That said, letting the courts decide has yielded better results through the years than politicians likely would have delivered on their own. Judicial panels have produced maps devoid of obvious partisan tilt and conducive to robust political competition. Minnesota has been spared the abuses of power that have afflicted other states when one party has sole control of political maps.

That explains why a number of this state's elder statesmen have called for a permanent change in the redistricting process. They propose giving a panel of retired district judges, not the Legislature, first crack at equalizing district populations.

Minnesotans can consider themselves fortunate to have lived for most of the last half-century with court-ordered redistricting plans. It will take a change in law to make sure that, in decades to come, their luck holds.


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    "The court should be applauded for developing these fair redistricting maps. The court maps are a rejection of the partisan maps proposed by the political parties [that] show how the redistricting process could have been gerrymandered."


    -Mike Dean, executive director, Common Cause Minnesota

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