The New Mexico Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments on Jan. 9 in dispute over a new state congressional map. The state Republican Party filed a lawsuit this year arguing the newly-drawn district boundary lines represent an illegal political gerrymander. (Eddie Moore/Journal)
SANTA FE — The New Mexico Supreme Court plans to hear arguments in January on a Republican-backed lawsuit targeting a new state congressional map.
In a Friday order, the state’s highest court took over control of the case from a state judge in Clovis and directed both sides in the redistricting litigation to file legal briefs by next month.
The legal action comes after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office — along with other top-ranking Democrats — asked the Supreme Court in July to intervene in the case in order to resolve its underlying legal questions.
The lawsuit was initially filed in January by the New Mexico Republican Party and seven other plaintiffs, who argued the Democratic-backed congressional map was a political gerrymander that intentionally chopped up Republican voting strongholds in southeast New Mexico in order to obtain a partisan advantage.
District Court Judge Fred Van Soelen of Clovis refused to dismiss the lawsuit in April, but ruled the new boundary lines approved by the Legislature during a special session on redistricting late last year would remain in place for this year’s election cycle.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said Friday he welcomed the Supreme Court’s involvement in the case, while reiterating GOP criticism about how the new map divides the state into three congressional districts.
“The state Legislature redrew lines that were a clear case of partisan gerrymandering,” Pearce said in a statement. “These new boundaries were strictly for Democrats’ political gain. We are pleased, however, that this important issue will be heard by the Supreme Court early next year.”
The new map approved after release of 2020 U.S. census data reorients New Mexico’s political landscape by splitting Albuquerque into two congressional districts and spreading the conservative oil patch and agricultural region of southeastern New Mexico into three districts.
The GOP contends the map was illegally designed to damage the reelection chances of the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation — Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo — though Democrats have disputed that claim.
In a court brief filed this summer with the Supreme Court, attorneys for the governor, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and top legislative Democrats questioned whether the judiciary could consider claims of partisan gerrymandering under New Mexico’s Constitution.
The motion also pointed out that last year’s round of redistricting marked the first time since 1991 that new congressional maps had been approved via the legislative process, as the courts had to ultimately draw new boundary lines after redistricting plans were vetoed in both 2001 and 2011.
“Here, there was no failure or deadlock,” the Democratic officials wrote in their motion, adding the new congressional map complies with both the federal one-person, one-vote, standard and the U.S. Voting Rights Act that’s intended to protect minority groups from discriminatory treatment.
Under the new map, all three of the New Mexico’s congressional districts include a mix of urban and rural areas, and all three seats lean Democratic, according to analysis of past elections by redistricting contractor Research & Polling, Inc.