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Group alleges California redistricting commission hired partisan attorneys, demands changes

·3 min read

A prominent California Republican attorney and five voters allege in a new legal filing that the state’s political redistricting commission is working with partisan legal advisers and holding meetings behind closed doors.

The group wants the California Supreme Court to order the commission to comply with state open meeting laws and to hire new, nonpartisan attorneys.

The voters filed their petition directly to the state Supreme Court just three weeks before the California Redistricting Commission must submit its final maps for voting boundaries in next year’s legislative and congressional election

Harmeet Dhillon, managing partner of the Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco and member of the Republican National Committee, said the commission is “violating the will of the California voters” by holding closed-door meetings and retaining attorneys with a conflict of interest.

The petition alleges the commission is “betraying its founding charter” by failing to “conduct its sensitive work through a fully open and public process.” The petitioners said they learned through public records requests that commissioners have privately met with certain interest groups in violation of public meeting requirements.

The filing also claims that the law firm for the commission — Los Angeles-based Strumwasser & Woocher — represents the Legislature and several Democrats, meaning it cannot provide unbiased counsel.

The firm represents a variety of local governments and public agencies, along with political action committees and candidates, labor unions and consumer advocacy groups, according to its website. The firm also “served as state election counsel to the Obama/Biden 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns,” and has represented the Democratic National Committee.

Pedro Toledo, spokesman for the redistricting commission, said the organization is reviewing the petition.

“This commission’s commitment to transparency has consistently gone far beyond anything required under the law. We are working hard to ensure our maps are drafted with meaningful public input and engagement as we finalize them. We have a mandate to produce final maps no later than December 27, 2021. That remains our focus and priority.”

California voters in 2008 and 2010 approved initiatives that created redistricting commission and charged it withdrawing Senate, Assembly, Board of Equalization and congressional maps. The initiatives called for a process demanding public input under “strict, nonpartisan rules.”

The panel is intended to be independent, with five Republicans, five Democrats and four no party preference voters chosen via application. Their job is to design maps that provide “fair representation for all Californians” in an open, public-facing format that encourages participation.

The petition requests the court to block commissioners from meeting outside of publicly posted hearings, and to release any notes from private gatherings. They also want to know how the commission uses “secret statistical analyses of voting patterns and demographics” to draw districts and to hire new attorneys who will ensure “constitutionally mandated independence.”

“We are asking the court to order the commission to stop violating the transparency laws and to stop allowing a biased and conflicted law firm to call the shots,” Dhillon said, “including concealing information to the public that is vital to our understanding of the legitimacy of the line drawing.”

The criticism is bipartisan.

“The whole selling point of the commission was that they would be transparent,” said Steve Maviglio, a democratic strategist who campaigned against the ballot measures setting up the commission. “This is winding up to be just as bad, if not worse, than how the Legislature did it...They’ve had all these meetings that have not been open and transparent to the public. The decisions seem to be largely made behind closed doors. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

Attorneys on both side of the dispute have little time to waste if they want to maintain map-submission deadlines. Commissioners are currently in the final weeks of drawing new districts that will be used for the next decade. They face a Dec. 23 deadline to display the final maps, and a Dec. 27 cutoff to certify them to the Secretary of State.

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