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Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan Puts A Halt To Oregon Redistricting Ballot Measure

Ellen Rosenblum is sworn in as attorney general for the state of Oregon on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
Ellen Rosenblum is sworn in as attorney general for the state of Oregon on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan granted an emergency stay on adding the measure to the fall ballot. The stay was requested by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has hit the brakes on an effort to dramatically alter how Oregon draws its legislative and congressional districts.

In a ruling Tuesday, Kagan granted an emergency stay that will halt, for now, a push by government watchdog groups and industry players to land a measure on the November ballot placing authority for those districts in the hands of a nonpartisan commission.

The stay, requested by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum last month, is the latest step in a dramatic legal saga over the ballot campaign, known as “People Not Politicians.” In July, the coalition successfully arguedthat, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it faced an undue burden in collecting enough signatures to land its measure on the November ballot.

So even though it had far too few signatures to qualify, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane ruled that the group should face a lower standard. He ordered Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno to either place the measure on the ballot or change the rules so that backers have a much lower signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.

Clarno chose the latter option, meaning the People Not Politicians campaign got an extended deadline and needed to turn in fewer than 59,000 signatures to qualify — a far cry from the 150,000 needed in normal times.

Rosenblum appealed the ruling, though Clarno hadn’t asked her to, and when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to issue an emergency stay on the order, Rosenblum took her case to Kagan.

McShane’s ruling “encroaches on the state’s sovereign authority to determine for itself the process by which its own constitution can be amended,” Rosenblum wrote. “Changing the rules for initiatives by judicial fiat, this late in the election cycle only for one privileged measure, is legally unsupportable and fundamentally unfair.”

The Supreme Court justice has now agreed.

“The application for stay presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is granted,” the order says. It says McShane’s rulings will be “stayed pending disposition of the appeal …” The order also suggests that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor “would deny” the state’s application for a stay.

Parties on either side of the issue did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While the matter of drawing district lines may seem arcane, it could have a big impact on political power in Oregon. Currently, the Oregon Legislature redraws congressional and legislative district lines to account for population changes.

Following the 2020 Census, Democrats in the Legislature and governor’s office are poised to have sole control over those changes for the first time in modern Oregon history. Control over redistricting could help Democrats maintain their three-fifths supermajority in the Legislature, which allows them to raise taxes without needing Republican votes. It also helps give Democrats a better shot at winning a new congressional seat that Oregon is expected to get after redistricting.

The redistricting measure is sponsored by a coalition of business organizations that are politically close to Republicans and government watchdog groups. The two chief sponsors represent the Oregon League of Women Voters and the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.