Oklahoma Supreme Court hears challenges to independent redistricting petition
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday heard two legal challenges to an initiative petition seeking to implement a redistricting process in Oklahoma that’s independent of the state Legislature.
The challenges took issue with the description of the initiative petition and claimed the petition violates some Oklahomans’ First Amendment rights and breaks the state’s single-subject rule, which says initiative petitions may deal with only one main issue.
An Oklahoma group called People Not Politicians wants the chance to circulate petitions asking Oklahoma voters to take redistricting power away from state lawmakers. The group aims to create a Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission to take over redistricting efforts.
Attorney Robert McCampbell of Gable Gotwals, who is representing the Oklahomans challenging the petitions, said proposed State Question 804 violates the single-subject rule because legislative and congressional redistricting are treated differently, although state legislators are responsible for both.
Oklahoma’s GOP-controlled Legislature is responsible for drawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts.
People Not Politicians’ proposed state question seeks to vest that authority with a nine-person commission made up of non-elected officials from different political parties.
McCampbell asserted that the petition's gist, or description, is lacking and misleading because it does not include details on how commissioners are chosen.
Most notably, he pointed out that voters are aware that the party that controls the Legislature is in charge of the redistricting process, but the independent commission would be made up of three Democrats, three Republicans and three people unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. The three-three-three formula is not included in the gist.
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“I have a problem with the gist. I don’t think it’s descriptive enough,” Justice Douglas Combs told attorney Melanie Rughani, who is representing People Not Politicians.
Rughani said justices could criticize just about every gist as lacking in detail because it’s simply supposed to be a short explanation of what the petition seeks to do so voters know what they’re signing. It is not intended to be as detailed as the ballot title people see when they go vote.
She also dismissed the argument that the petition violates the state’s single-subject rule.
“I think it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with a single subject here,” she said. “That’s redistricting.”
McCampbell also argued the petition limits residents’ First Amendment rights to be involved in state politics because it sets limits on who can serve on the commission.
The petition stipulates state elected officials and their immediate family members would be ineligible to serve until five years after leaving elected office. State, federal and local lobbyists and their immediate family members also would be barred.
To be eligible to serve on the commission, a person also must not change their voter registration for four or more years prior to applying. In a six-month period in 2018, 19,000 people changed their voter registration, immediately disqualifying them for these posts, McCampbell said.
He argued the state has no business limiting the role of Oklahomans to participate in state government and the requirements spelled out in the petition are too broad and would eliminate too many people.
Chief Justice Noma Gurich said the requirements seemed reasonable to keep partisan politics out of a commission that’s designed to be devoid of politics. She compared the process to picking an impartial jury for a trial.
“I don’t think that’s unusual in other boards and commissions in Oklahoma,” she said. One example given was of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which selects potential judges and justices.
Special Justice John Reif disagreed, saying the petition’s requirements would significantly infringe on the First Amendment rights of family members of residents who are political involved.
“Have you ever heard the saying you can pick your friends, but not your family?” he said.
It could take days or weeks for the justices to say whether proposed SQ 804 can move forward.
Republican leaders of Oklahoma's House and Senate both oppose the proposal.