The very mention of the word "redistricting" can set opportunistic partisan minds racing, while defenders of democratic fairness brace for mischief.

The constitutional requirement that state governments equalize the populations of legislative and congressional districts after each decennial census may have been intended to give every American comparable representation in lawmaking bodies. But in practice, throughout the nation's history, creative mapmakers have used the process to mute the voices of their political opponents and of minorities. Redistricting gives legislators a chance to choose their own voters -- the converse of what democracy promises.

Minnesota's recent redistricting history is neither as colorful, nor as tainted with partisanship, as that of many states. That's likely because on three of the past four occasions, the Legislature and governor failed to agree on new jurisdictional boundaries. By default, the task fell to the judiciary. In each case, panels of judges produced maps deemed acceptably fair to both major political parties.

Getting the judiciary into the act earlier and more intentionally would ease fears about the next Minnesota redistricting, due to commence in 2011. That promising idea is at the heart of a change proposed last year by a coalition assembled by the Humphrey Institute and led by two of Minnesota's best statesmen, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson. Their idea deserves the Legislature's consideration this year.

The Humphrey Institute's bipartisan group recommends that the map-drawing task be placed initially in the hands of a five-member commission, comprised of retired district or appellate court judges. Leaders of the four legislative caucuses, two DFLers and two Republicans, would each choose one commission member. The commission itself would choose the fifth. No judge who had previously served in elective partisan office could serve.

The five former judges would be charged with recommending new district boundaries to the Legislature, and assigned a set of guiding principles (see box.) The Legislature would be allowed only a yes-or-no vote in response on the commission's first two attempts. Only if a third map met with disapproval would the Legislature be authorized to draw new lines itself.

The Legislature would retain ultimate authority over redistricting, which is why this change can be accomplished by statute rather than constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, the idea is meeting with resistance from legislators who seek to retain as much control as possible over a process that might alter their careers. For them, redistricting is more than political. It's personal.

To his credit, the leader of Senate DFLers, Larry Pogemiller, has embraced the judicial commission proposal as its sponsor. No one can accuse Pogemiller of lack of partisan zeal. But he also understands state government's need for public confidence. That suffers when redistricting is perceived to be a secretive, self-interested activity.

Giving that chore to respected senior judges, and putting into statute the principles that must guide their work, would help "create an environment in which everybody thinks he's being treated fairly," Pogemiller said. In a state facing enormous challenges in the next decade, that kind of environment at the statehouse is much to be desired.