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Governor, GOP seek special master in redistricting

Barry Massey

Gov. Susana Martinez and other Republicans asked a state district court on Wednesday to appoint a special master to draw boundaries for congressional, legislative and other elected office districts.

Using a special master could save taxpayers money and reduce the time for a court to resolve the politically thorny task of redistricting, the Republicans said in requests filed with the court. The governor also contends that a special master will make redistricting more fair by taking partisan politics out of the process of revamping districts.

Redistricting is important because it can influence the political balance of power in New Mexico for the rest of this decade.

Boundaries of elected office districts _ Congress, the state House and Senate and the Public Regulation Commission _ must be realigned to adjust for population changes during the past decade. District populations must be equalized as much as possible to comply with the legal requirement of one person, one vote.

Redistricting has ended up in court because the governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to agree on plans for revamping district boundaries. Lawmakers didn't pass a congressional plan and Martinez vetoed Democratic-backed legislative and PRC plans because she contended they would give Democrats too much of a political advantage in future elections.

Retired District Court Judge James Hall has been assigned to handle redistricting lawsuits filed by groups of Democrats, Republicans and Indian tribes.

One option is for the judge to draw district boundaries after hearing evidence and considering different plans offered by those involved in the lawsuits. That's what happened 10 years ago when a court ordered district boundaries for Congress and the state House of Representatives.

The governor and Republicans suggested another approach, which has been used in Nevada and some other states. The court would name a special master to draw district maps for Congress, the Legislature and PRC. After lawyers submit written arguments and a hearing is held on those plans, the court would adopt final district boundaries.

"Appointing an experienced demographer as a special master to draw neutral and objective redistricting plans, which the parties would still have ample opportunity to comment on, will assist this court in adopting plans that are not based upon partisan interests, but are based upon objective criteria interpreted by a neutral expert," lawyers for the governor, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and Secretary of State Dianna Duran said in their request to the court.

Another group of Republicans, including House and Senate members, warned that the cost of redistricting litigation could double to $8 million or more if the court follows the approach taken 10 years ago for congressional and House districts. Taxpayers had to pay nearly $4 million on redistricting legal costs a decade ago, but this time the court must decide four plans rather than two.

"Appointment of a special master will drastically reduce the time and expense involved in resolving this dispute and producing congressional, House, Senate and PRC redistricting plans precisely because it will avoid a `beauty pageant' trial," the GOP group said. "There will be no competing maps that the parties advocate or attack, and the court will not be faced with the task of either choosing among those (likely more or less partisan) maps or undertaking the equally if not more difficult burden of fashioning its own map."

It's possible that the judge could rule on the request as early as next week. The judge is allowing lawyers until the end of the week to submit comments in opposition to the special master proposal.

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The Associated Press