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DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court’s announcement last week that it will do what it can to ensure Iowa’s redistricting process continues as normal as possible despite a delay in getting census data was simultaneously surprising, welcome and a little concerning.
That’s quite the range of reactions to a news release, to be sure. But this was no ordinary news release.
To start, the Iowa Supreme Court commenting on an issue before it even reaches the court happens roughly somewhere between rarely and never.
The court says it practices that kind of restraint out of fairness, and that checks out. If the court is going to be asked to rule on an issue, it wouldn’t seem proper for the court to be discussing that issue weeks or months in advance.
It makes sense, and is perhaps comforting that the court broke with that long-standing practice in this case. As long as we’ve known that federal census data was going to be severely delayed this year, we’ve known Iowa’s redistricting procedure faced many unknowns.
With the federal data not expected until after the Iowa Constitution’s Sept. 15 deadline for redistricting to be completed, there have been an endless number of questions and very few concrete answers.
The state Supreme Court’s announcement that if the data does not arrive on time it will help oversee the process and ensure it runs as normal as possible may have provided some comfort to Iowans concerned about how the process would play out. With the court involved, it feels like the state’s redistricting process, which is widely hailed for its nonpartisan nature, has an improved chance of staying on track despite unprecedented circumstances.
And yet within that announcement there was also a cause for concern. It would be fair, and perhaps a bit understated, to say the court is not conveying much of an air of transparency.
The announcement provided few details about how the court may involve itself in the redistricting process, other than to say that it would implement a process that would permit “to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in Iowa Code chapter 42…”.
That’s pretty vague.
Will the court just extend the deadline and allow the Legislative Services Agency and Iowa Legislature to conduct the procedure as they normally would? Will the court have the legislative agency draw the maps and then approve those maps, leaving lawmakers out of the process? Or will the court do all the work of both drawing and approving the maps?
The news release gave no indication of what the court might do.
What’s more is the court said, at the present time, it does not anticipate answering additional questions or making any other public comments.
Remember, this is a process in which political election boundaries throughout the state — for the 150 seats in the Iowa Legislature — will be redrawn and established for the next decade. It is a monumental task with massive political consequences. That does not sound like the type of procedure that should be conducted without any public scrutiny.
Perhaps this will become moot if the census bureau will move up its timeline and data will get to Iowa in time for agency and legislators to complete the work before the Sept. 15 deadline.
But the more time that passes without any such change, and the more it begins to look like the state Supreme Court will have to be involved, the more court should offer insight into its plans for redistricting. The task is far too important to be undertaken out of the public eye.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.