With their eyes on the prize of the next redistricting process, Senate Democrats took aim at Gov. Doug Ducey’s appointments to the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, arguing that he’s violating a constitutional diversity requirement.
The Senate on Tuesday approved five of the governor’s appointees to the commission. Under Arizona’s merit selection system for judges, the commission vets nominees for the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court. The 15-person commission has 10 non-attorney members who are appointed by the governor and 5 attorney members who are chosen by the State Bar of Arizona.
Prior to the vote, the chamber’s Democratic caucus put out a press release arguing that Ducey was violating a provision of the Arizona Constitution stating that he “shall endeavor to see that the commission reflects the diversity of Arizona’s population.”
They pointed out that only one woman currently sits on the commission, even though more than half of Arizonans are women. Three of the governor’s five nominees whom the Senate approved on Tuesday are women. And despite the fact that about 45 percent of Arizonans identify as non-white, only one of the governor’s nominees is a person of color.
And though nearly a third of Arizona voters are registered as Democrats, the senators noted that not a single member of the commission is a Democrat.
Arizona’s Constitution specifies that no more than five non-attorney members and three of the attorney members can be from the same political party. Ducey is meeting that criterion by filling all the non-Republican spots with registered independents, though Democrats questioned exactly how independent they’ll be.
The makeup of the commission, especially the lack of partisan balance, may come back to haunt Democrats in 2021 when it selects nominees for the next Independent Redistricting Commission.
The IRC consists of five members. The Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate each select one member, and those four select a fifth person to serve as chairman. Because no more than two members can be from the same political party, the chairman is traditionally an independent.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday questioned how the gender, racial, ethnic and partisan makeup would affect the redistricting commission. The commission evaluates all redistricting commission applicants and selects 25 candidates – 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five others.
Appellate court appointment commissioners serve four-year terms, so all five of the commissioners who were approved on Tuesday will help select those candidates.
“[T]he governor is unconstitutionally stacking the Appellate Commission with conservative and predominantly white male appointments so they will help create an IRC that will draw districts favorable to elect Republican politicians,” Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said in a press release on Tuesday.
Democrats pointed out that one of the independents Ducey nominated to the commission, Kathryn Townsend, is not only a former Republican, but used to served as a Republican precinct committeeman, which is an elected,voting member of a political party’s legislative district-level organization. Another of the Republicans, Laura Ciscomani, is married to a member of Ducey’s staff.
“This commission will be packed with Republicans because the independent nominees we’re considering today are anything but independent,” Sen. Juan Mendez, a Tempe Democrat, said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, a Democrat who is a member of the Navajo Nation, questioned on the Senate floor what effect the commission’s makeup will have on the state’s 22 Native American tribes. She worried that, under the next legislative district map, Native Americans may not have the same representation they have now in District 7, which is predominantly Native. Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said the commission’s makeup doesn’t reflect the fact that nearly a third of Arizonans are Latino.
Mendez’s comments about the lack of independence among the commission’s independent members are in some ways ironic, considering the controversies over the last redistricting commission, which was empaneled in 2011.
In cases of partisan splits at the commission, the deciding vote rests with the all-powerful fifth vote of the independent chair. Colleen Mathis, who chaired the last commission, sided with Democrats in nearly every contested vote. At one point, she arrived at a meeting with a proposed map of Maricopa County’s five congressional districts that she’d brought from home.
Republicans accused Mathis of effectively serving as the commission’s third Democrat and impeached her in late 2011. The Arizona Supreme Court later reinstated her, ruling that GOP lawmakers had no grounds for impeachment.
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak defended the governor’s nominations to the judicial selection commission, saying the administration “absolutely” takes diversity into account when selecting commissioners. He noted that three of the five non-attorney members he nominated this year were women, and that two are independents, “the state’s largest voting bloc.” And one is a Hispanic first-generation American, he said.
“As we consider appointments to fill other vacancies, we will continue to adhere to the principles outlined in the constitution with regards to diversity and party affiliation,” Ptak said.
The terms of three of the commission’s other non-attorney members – two Republicans and an independent – will end before it selects candidates for the next IRC in early 2021. Ducey could re-appoint those members, as he did this year with Commissioner Tracy Munsil, a Republican.
Asked specifically if the governor should appoint Democrats to the commission, or if Republican and independent members will fairly choose Democratic redistricting candidates who represent their party’s interests, Ptak said only that there are two current vacancies. One of the outgoing commissioners Ducey replaced this year, Charie Wallace, was a Democrat who was appointed in 2014 by former Gov. Jan Brewer.