Judge clears way for New Mexico GOP redistricting challenge

April 20, 2022 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A state district judge has cleared the way for the Republican Party of New Mexico to challenge a congressional map that divvies up a conservative area of the state into three congressional districts, rejecting a motion by Democrats who sought to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit by the GOP and seven allied plaintiffs holds implications for a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico where Republican Yvette Herrell ousted a first-term Democrat in the 2020 election.

District Judge Fred Van Soelen outlined his decision in two letters issued Tuesday. Despite the plaintiffs making what he described as a strong, well-developed case, the judge denied a preliminary injunction that sought to set aside the map ahead of the June 7 primary and the November 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.

Van Soelen also noted that the map at issue could potentially be used for the next five elections, until the next redistricting process in about 10 years, so the case will continue and the court will hear more arguments at a later date that could affect the elections after 2022.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the case is not about politics but rather fairness.

“We want to ensure that all the voices of New Mexicans are protected and represented by these maps, regardless of their political beliefs,” he said in a statement. “The court recognizes that we have strong evidence to support our claim of blatant illegal gerrymandering that rips apart communities of interest and disenfranchises voters across the state.”

GOP attorney Christopher Murray had argued on Monday that the congressional map approved in December by the Democratic-led Legislature and signed by the state’s Democratic governor is partisan, dilutes the conservative vote and violates state constitutional rights to impartial government.

He had urged the court to throw out the current voting map and implement one of two congressional map proposals endorsed last year by an advisory citizen redistricting committee. The committee’s recommendations were not binding.

Attorneys for the Legislature and governor defended the state’s new congressional map as properly vetted through the political process and warned the court against intervening and getting mired in a “thicket.”

The governor’s office and state elections officials said they were pleased with part of the judge’s decision, saying the upcoming elections will be allowed to move ahead with the map endorsed by the governor and Democratic lawmakers.

Holly Agajanian, representing Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the Republican Party hasn’t adequately explained why it would be more fair to implement a map that wasn’t endorsed by the Legislature and governor.

The Republican Party cited public comments by top Democratic legislators as evidence of partisan bias in decisions about boundaries of the 2nd District in southern New Mexico.

Democrats hold two of New Mexico’s three congressional seats, command majorities in the state House and Senate and hold every statewide elected office.