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September 18, 2014

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Who wants the most political task out there? Apparently no one

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When the Nevada Legislature punted redistricting to the courts this year, it passed on a task no one appears eager to accept.

In the redistricting case’s first hearing Tuesday, District Judge James Todd Russell said he will appoint a special team of court masters to work with Democrats and Republicans to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries.

Although Russell said he’s ready to decide the legal questions surrounding the case, he clearly didn’t want to take pencil in hand and draw the lines himself.

But the people Russell wants to do that job don’t really want it either.

In what many observers call a “surprising twist,” Russell said he would like voter registrars in Washoe, Clark and Carson City counties and a member of the Legislative Counsel Bureau to draw the lines. Although he said he would take arguments from lawyers for the Democratic and Republican parties on who should be named a master, Russell seemed pretty intent on tapping the registrars for the job.

The suggestion shocked both Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax and Washoe Registrar Dan Burk.

“What?” Lomax said when informed of the Carson City judge’s intent. “Holy crap!”

After discussing it with Clark County Manager Don Burnette, Lomax said it’s not a job he is willing to accept.

“The thrust seemed to be that it’s such a political thing, there’s no reason to get into it,” Lomax said.

Burk had a similar reaction.

“This is really meant to be a process where politicians deal with it, and I’m certainly no politician,” he said. “I can absolutely guarantee nobody would be particularly pleased with the result.”

By taking the unusual step of appointing the registrars to decide the lines, however, Russell is attempting to take politics out of the most quintessentially political task put before elected officials.

“I’m trying to think outside of the box here,” Russell said. “I don’t want anybody with a political agenda to do this.”

Typically, federal courts appoint a technical expert as a master. State courts, such as District Court, have usually relied on retired or senior judges.

Under Russell’s process, the court would set the legal guidelines under which the panel of masters would work.

That means before it even gets to the masters, the lawyers for both sides want the judge to decide a slew of legal questions that form the crux of the disagreement.

For example, does the judge agree with Republicans that the Voting Rights Act dictates that Hispanics be given a majority in one congressional district, four state Senate districts and eight Assembly districts?

Or does he agree with Democrats, who argue, among other things, the 14th Amendment prohibits race from being used a sole factor and who believe Hispanics would have greater influence if their numbers were spread across more districts?

Nevada courts have never decided redistricting. The constitution assigns the task to the Legislature, which refused to broker a compromise this session and sent the process to the court.

Russell admitted he was looking for guidance on how to proceed. He gave lawyers for both sides until July 20 to create a list of suggested masters and raise legal issues that must be decided.

But the prospect of a panel of masters deciding what Nevada’s political boundaries will be for the next decade may increase the pressure on Gov. Brian Sandoval to call a special session and force lawmakers to come to an agreement.

“Obviously the judge is grabbing at straws here,” Burk said. “That’s really what (lawmakers) are supposed to do, and they need to work through that process. I don’t think they really did that. I really think it should go back to the Legislature and say ‘work this out.’ ”

Some lawmakers also believe Sandoval should hand it back to the Legislature.

“The reality is it definitely shows why the courts are not the way to go with this,” said one lawmaker who wished to remain anonymous so as not to antagonize the judge.

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