A state district judge ruled Tuesday a state Republican Party lawsuit aimed at throwing out a congressional redistricting map may go forward but stopped short of affecting the June 7 primary or the November general election.
Judge Fred Van Soelen of Clovis said in a separate ruling he could not make a final decision on the case until after this year due to the short amount of time left to create a new map before the primaries and general election.
“To require a change this late in the game would bring a level of chaos to the process that is not in the public’s or candidates’ interest,” he wrote in his ruling, issued Tuesday.
Van Soelen’s rulings are seen as a partial victory for Republicans and others who have questioned the Legislature’s process for drawing new maps for congressional, legislative and Public Education Commission seats.
Lawyers for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature had asked Van Soelen to dismiss the case, arguing the court has no jurisdiction in the issue.
But Van Soelen said in his ruling the court has every right to consider the case.
He ruled the plaintiffs, including the Republican Party of New Mexico, made a “strong, well-developed case that [the redistricting bill] is a partisan gerrymander created in an attempt to dilute Republican votes” in congressional elections.
But because redistricting is conducted every 10 years and thus will affect elections over a decade, the judge said he will hear further arguments “at a later date” and not allow his ruling to impact the 2022 elections.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office called the decision “a win for all New Mexico voters” because “this attempt to interfere with this year’s imminent elections will not go forward.”
Alex Curtas, spokesman for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, wrote in an email Tuesday the agency is “pleased with the result given the imminence of the election and understanding that any changes at this late hour would have led to disruption, increased cost, and voter confusion.”
The Republican Party and six other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in January alleging a new map of New Mexico’s three U.S. House districts — approved in a special session late last year by the Democrat-dominated Legislature — is “a political gerrymander” that weakens the voting power of residents in communities in the southeastern part of the state.
The lawsuit says legislators “ran roughshod” over traditional redistricting methods to give Democrats an advantage.
According to the lawsuit, communities of interest were split around the state but particularly in the southeastern New Mexico, long a Republican stronghold.
“Fracturing these communities of interest drastically cracks — and thereby dilutes — a significant block of registered Republicans,” the complaint says.
At stake is a congressional swing district in Southern New Mexico where Republican Yvette Herrell defeated a first-term Democrat in the 2020 election. The 2nd Congressional District had long been held by Republicans until Xochitl Torres Small beat Herrell in 2018.
The Associated Press reported GOP attorney Christopher Murray alleged the congressional map, approved in December by the Democrat-led Legislature and signed by a Democratic governor, is blatantly partisan. He argued it dilutes the conservative vote and violates state constitutional rights to impartial government.
Murray asked the court to throw out the voting map and implement one of two congressional map proposals endorsed last year by an advisory citizen redistricting committee. That committee’s recommendations were not binding, however, and state lawmakers maintained the right to ignore them or adopt them only in part.
Murray could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Lawyers representing Lujan Grisham and the state Legislature have argued the maps were properly vetted and are fair.
The lawsuit names Lujan Grisham, Toulouse Oliver, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart and House Speaker Brian Egolf, all Democrats, as defendants.
Reached by phone, Egolf said: “I would prefer to have lawyers representing us make a comment” on the ruling. Stewart also deferred to attorneys.
Efforts to reach attorney Holly Agajanian, who represents the state in the case, were unsuccessful. She did not return a call seeking comment.
Among the plaintiffs joining the state GOP in filing the suit are Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, and former state Sen. Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat.
Partisan debates over the map were contentious in the House and Senate during the December special session on redistricting.
In New Mexico, the process has often been controversial and eventually resolved by court rulings.
In 2012, a state district judge drew new election boundaries for congressional and legislative seats after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted after the 2010 census by a Legislature controlled by Democrats.