Republicans want NJ Supreme Court to toss tiebreaker’s new explanation for redistricting
By NIKITA BIRYUKOV
New Jersey Monitor
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday told the state Congressional Redistricting Commission’s Democratic members to respond to GOP arguments that the high court should disregard commission tiebreaker John Wallace’s explanation for why he chose the Democratic congressional map adopted last month.
The commission’s Republican members say Wallace’s newest explanation for his decision — the court had ordered him to give “a more detailed statement of reasons” than he gave at a Dec. 22 commission hearing — runs afoul of a constitutional provision requiring the commission’s vote be made at a public hearing.
The court’s Monday letter to Democrats was the latest development in the Republican effort to have the new congressional map voided, the redistricting process restarted, and Wallace recused as the commission’s tie-breaking vote.
The map chosen by Wallace gives an edge to a handful of Democratic House members by adding more solidly Democratic towns into their districts. The GOP, which hopes to take control of Congress after November’s midterm elections, has called it a “nakedly partisan” gerrymander.
The new map, in effect for the next decade, leaves the southeast portion of Montclair — by and large, the township’s Fourth Ward, where its greatest concentrations of Black and brown residents live — in the majority-Black 10th District, represented by Democrat Donald Payne.
But Payne cedes territory in Montclair beyond that to Democrat Mikie Sherrill, part of a reconfiguration that puts her in much better position for reelection this year. Before the change, Montclair had a simpler north-south split — with most areas north of Watchung Avenue in NJ-11, and areas south of it in NJ-10 (with just a few blocks north of Watchung on the east side of town jutting into NJ-11).
The new congressional district borders don’t line up exactly with the split between the Fourth Ward and its neighboring Second and Third Wards, though they’re very close. Some streets in the northern end of the Fourth Ward will be in NJ-11, and some streets near Essex Park, in the Second Ward, will be in NJ-10. A few streets on the western end of the Fourth Ward, where it borders the Third, will be in NJ-11 as well.
The 11th District had once been solidly Republican territory, but has leaned blue in recent years, demonstrated most significantly in 2018 when Sherrill beat Republican Jay Webber in the race to succeed longtime GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. The new map gives her further Democratic support across several towns.
Democratic Redistricting Commission members have until Jan. 27 to submit their reply to the Supreme Court. The court’s Monday letter was first reported by the New Jersey Globe.
Faced with deadlock on the commission last year over which map to choose, Wallace, a former state Supreme Court justice, praised both maps at the December hearing but said he was voting in favor of the Democratic map because a GOP map was chosen during the last round of redistricting 10 years ago.
The commission’s six Republicans sued their Democratic counterparts and Wallace, and the case is now before the Supreme Court. At the court’s request, Wallace earlier this month submitted a more in-depth explanation of his reasoning — called an amplification — in which he said the Democratic map pulls ahead on tests of partisan symmetry and is more “party-blind” than the Republican map.
In court documents, Republicans argue Wallace should not have been afforded the chance to explain his reasoning, saying his amplification improperly offers a new argument for his decision, rather than expanding on the reasons he gave in December.
“Instead of explaining why the party that ‘won’ last time was a valid reason for selecting a map … Chair Wallace instead took the opportunity to offer new reasons — which were unstated at the public meeting — for selecting the Democratic map,” the GOP brief says.
The commission’s Democratic members argue Republicans have misread Wallace’s Dec. 22 statements and say there is no question the Democratic map is fairer than the one drawn by Republicans.
“Plaintiffs’ arguments are predicated on their unsupported belief that Chair Wallace’s analysis of both maps had them so close that a decision was impossible,” their brief says. “But Plaintiffs mistook Chair Wallace’s professionalism, politeness, and December 22 expression of respect for the process as evidence of equivalency between the proposed partisan maps. There were no equals here.”
The Republicans also charge Wallace’s amplification infringes on their due process rights because, unlike his statements at the Dec. 22 meeting, the commission’s Republican cohort was unable to respond to it with arguments that may have swayed him or the commission’s six Democratic members.
The GOP plaintiffs also argue a $250 contribution made by Wallace’s wife, Barbara Wallace, to the campaign of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) in March 2021 represents a conflict of interest.
The panel’s Democrats want the suit thrown out, arguing Wallace’s amplification shows his reasoning was not arbitrary or capricious.
The Supreme Court selected Wallace, Democrats’ pick for tiebreaker, as the commission’s 13th member in August. Republicans backed former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus for the position.
The Democratic brief notes the commission’s GOP members did not seek to have Wallace removed over his wife’s donation to Watson-Coleman until after he voted against the Republican map.