State Supreme Court justices reacted with measured skepticism Thursday to a petition from Connecituct’s bipartisan redistricting panel for more time to complete work on a map of congressional voting districts.
During a brief morning hearing, Assistant Attorney General Maura Murphy Osborne asked the justices to grant the nine-member Reapportionment Commission’s request to continue working on its new congressional map until Dec. 21.
The issue came under the court’s jurisdiction on Nov. 30, when the panel missed its deadline to complete work on adjusting Connecticut’s voting districts to reflect population changes recorded by the once-in-a-decade census survey.
“I believe this court should grant the commission’s Dec. 2 petition and should make clear — on the record, to the chief justice’s opening remarks, that this is a political process. It should be appropriately remanded to the political body that has the duty in the first instance to complete it,” Osborne said.
The commission has cited unusual obstacles to this year’s redistricting process including delays by the federal census agency, which was due to release its data in April but did not until August. Last month, the group approved new maps for state House and Senate voting districts.
Osborne told the court the panel continued to work towards its final task and planned to exchange map proposals for congressional districts on Friday. She said the group hoped to arrive at a consensus before its requested deadline.
The court did not announce a decision during the hearing. However, despite agreeing that the political task of redistricting was better suited for the legislative body, justices seemed reluctant to cede their jurisdiction of the matter by granting the panel’s request carte blanche.
Chief Justice Richard Robinson said events of the last couple years, including the pandemic, put the court in an unusual position.
“Hope is just not a plan of action,” Robinson said. “So I’m trying to figure out what we need to do to do our due diligence and run on a parallel path and I guess we’ll have to work that out amongst ourselves.”
While questioning Osborne, the justices mulled several answers to the petition including taking no action while the commission continued its work, granting a shorter extension, and beginning the process of naming a court-appointed mediator, called a special master.
“It’s better to plan for the worst and then be surprised,” Justice Andrew McDonald said. “Why wouldn’t we pursue parallel paths at this point? With the commission continuing its work and us going about the process of actually lining up a special master to assist the court in the event the commission fails to come to an agreement.”
McDonald’s scenario played out in 2011, when the commission approved House and Senate maps but eventually reached an impasse on a congressional plan. That year, the court appointed a special master, a constitutional law professor named Nathaniel Persily who, at that time, taught at Columbia Law School.
While Osborne began the hearing by reporting that the commission was not at an impasse, McDonald said it was too soon to rule one out.
“You said they’re not at an impasse. Fair enough but they haven’t even exchanged maps yet and so they don’t know if they’re going to be at an impasse,” McDonald said. “So why wouldn’t we just plan for the worst and then hope for the best.”
On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, a member of the commission, said he felt it was premature for the court to assign a special master. During the Thursday hearing, Osborne said the step may be unnecessary but conceded the court was free to take whatever action it deemed appropriate.
The court concluded the hearing after roughly a half-hour of discussion and set no immediate date for a decision. The chief justice said the Supreme Court hoped to have minimal involvement in the process.
“Our case law reflects that this court is an institution particularly ill-suited to undertake this role; we are therefore hopeful that the commission will complete its work,” Robinson said. “You may however rest assured that we will do our job if the commission cannot come to an agreement.”