PHOENIX -- The U.S. Supreme Court will decide who exactly is the "Legislature'' in Arizona, at least for purposes of drawing political lines.
In a brief order Tuesday, the justices set March 2 to hear arguments by attorneys for the organized Legislature that only they -- meaning the 90 members -- can divide up the state into its nine congressional districts. They contend that's what the U.S. Constitution requires.
If the high court agrees, that would pave the way for the Republican-controlled Legislature to redraw the lines ahead of the 2016 election. And that would allow them to reconfigure the maps to give GOP candidates a better chance of winning -- and of improving the 5-4 split in the congressional delegation this year's election gave to Republicans.
But first they have to convince the justices that the majority of a three-judge panel got it wrong when they concluded otherwise.
The fight is over a provision in the federal Constitution which says the "times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.''
But in 2000 voters amended the Arizona Constitution to create the Independent Redistricting Commission, giving its five members the power to draw both congressional and legislative boundaries. It drew both sets of maps following the 2000 census and again after the 2010 count.
It was only after that second redistricting -- and creation of congressional maps that Republicans did not like -- that lawmakers sued. They argued voters had no right to wrest that power from the Legislature.
Lawmakers lost the first round earlier this year.
U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow, writing for the majority of the three-judge panel, said he reads nothing in the U.S. Constitution that precludes the voters, as the ultimate lawmakers, from deciding to give that legislative chore to the commission. And Snow said the term "legislature'' refers not to the 90 elected lawmakers but to the state's entire lawmaking process.
"Since its inception, the Arizona Constitution has reserved the initiative power to its people,'' Snow wrote. That includes the power of voters to make their own laws and state constitutional provisions.
And in this case, the judge wrote, wrote, voters used that power to create the Independent Redistricting Commission.
He said that the voters decided that, at least for the purposes of drawing congressional lines, the commission is the legislature. And he said voters had the right to do that.
None of this affects whether the commission can draw legislative boundaries. But the Supreme Court is weighing a separate lawsuit brought by Republican interests who want those maps scrapped. They contend commission members illegally created legislative districts of unequal population to improve the chances of Democrats to get elected.
That argument faltered before a separate three-judge panel.
Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.