Rejecting Republican legislative leaders, a special screening panel refused today to strip three people from their list of nominees to the Independent Redistricting Commission.
A majority of the panel concluded that Stephen Sossaman, Mark Schnepf and Paul Bender are legally qualified to serve on the commission which will draw the lines for the state's nine congressional and 30 legislative districts for the coming decade. In fact, the panel effectively refused to accept the letters they got from Sossaman and Schnepf withdrawing their names from consideration.
Dewey Schade said it is apparent the pair took that action only after their nominations were publicly disclosed - and only after House Speaker Kirk Adams and Russell Pearce, the president elect of the Senate, had a press conference to ask them to step aside. Schade even pointed out that Schnepf, in his letter, said he believes he is qualified to serve on the redistricting commission but backed away only when it became clear that Adams and Pearce, who will choose from the nominees, will not choose him.
"It seems to me that if we respond to these shenanigans that have gone on, that is what undermines the public confidence," Schade said.
Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch, who chairs as the screening panel, said it is possible, if not likely, that today's action will result in a lawsuit. She said, though, that might not be a bad thing.
Berch noted that the claims by Adams and Pearce were that the three are not legally qualified to serve on the redistricting commission because they hold "public office.'' But she said that term is not defined, either in the 2000 law creating the commission or elsewhere.
Separately, panel members refused to reconsider their earlier decision not to nominate Tucsonan Christopher Gleason.
Adams and Pearce had charged that Gleason was eliminated from the list because of his religion. As their proof, they cited comments from Louis Araneta, a member of the screening panel, who questioned whether Gleason could separate issues of church and state.
Araneta subsequently quit in the uproar. But a majority of the remaining panel members said their own decisions not to nominate Gleason had nothing to do either with Araneta's comments or Gleason's religious activities.
Central to the dispute is that question of public officers.
Republicans Schnepf and Sossaman are elected members of irrigation district boards. Bender, a registered independent, serves as an appointed appellate judge for several Indian tribes.
Adams said the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which serves as the screening panel, is supposed to nominate 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independents. Top legislative leaders from both parties each pick one; those four choose a fifth.
Adams argued that he effectively got only eight Republican names from which to choose, as he could not name either Schnepf or Sossaman. He wanted two new names from which to pick.
That, however, is an open question, as attorneys told the screening panel that both are qualified to serve, as is Bender.
"We buy a lawsuit either way," said John Leavitt, another member of the screening panel.
Nor was Leavitt prepared to be forced into choosing two new nominees based on the letters of withdrawal.
In his letter, Schnepf said he still believes he is legally qualified to serve. But he opted to pull out because it became clear from their public comments that neither Adams nor Pearce would choose him, making his bid "futile."
Leavitt said the whole idea of the screening panel was to keep politics out of the nominations.
"There is no greater intrusion into the process than to have the two top Republican officials from state government call and get people to withdraw their names from consideration," he said. "That's completely inappropriate."
Pearce said there's another problem with the list of GOP nominees: Nine of them are from Maricopa County.
By law, Adams gets the first pick. But the law also says that no more than two commissioners can be from the same county.
What that means is if Adams picks a Maricopa Republican and House Minority Leader Chad Campbell picks a Maricopa Democrat, Pearce is left with only Pima County resident Benny White as the only eligible Republican, effectively giving him no choice at all.
But John Taylor said that's not the fault of he or other screening panel members.
He said if the Republican Party wanted a broader list of nominees it should have encouraged more people from more areas of the state to apply. Taylor said the panel chose the 10 most qualified of the 31 Republicans who applied, regardless of where they lived.
Technically speaking, Pearce would not be limited to choosing White. He could select a Democrat or an independent.