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Jurist pitched as state board's redistricting chief

Hutchinson says court’s ex-lead justice right for the job by Michael R. Wickline | May 25, 2021 at 7:15 a.m.
File Photo

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday suggested that the state Board of Apportionment consider hiring former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Betty Dickey as the board's redistricting coordinator.

Hutchinson is chairman of the state Board of Apportionment, which redraws legislative district boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census. Besides the governor, the board is composed of the attorney general, who is now Leslie Rutledge, and the secretary of state, who is John Thurston. Hutchinson, Rutledge and Thurston are Republicans.

Hutchinson said the board's redistricting coordinator will have to set up an office, undergo training and hold meetings to gather public input, including when the board has a proposed map for legislative district boundaries.

Rutledge said the redistricting coordinator needs to be technologically savvy because drawing maps of legislative districts is quite challenging.

Hutchinson suggested the board consider hiring Dickey, who the governor noted also is a former associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, a former prosecuting attorney and a former member of the Public Service Commission. In 1998, Dickey, a Republican, lost a bid for attorney general to the Democratic nominee, Mark Pryor of Little Rock.

The governor said Dickey has the credentials, the gravitas, the wisdom and the judicial temperament that's important for a redistricting coordinator who is receiving public input.

Hutchinson said he wants the redistricting coordinator to begin work by July 15. He said the board could meet next on June 24 to hold an executive session to interview a potential redistricting coordinator.

Thurston and Rutledge said they would like the board to meet again before June 24 to consider hiring the coordinator. Hutchinson said he would try to schedule a meeting before June 24 and ask Dickey to appear before the board in an executive session.

In this year's regular legislative session, lawmakers authorized a redistricting coordinator in the governor's office with a maximum authorized salary of $63,000 a year.

At the outset of Monday's meeting, the board's first, Hutchinson said, "We are awaiting information from the U.S. Census Bureau in order for us to do much of the hard work that will be necessary."

He said the Census Bureau has indicated that the states could receive the information needed to redraw legislative district boundaries as late as Sept. 30.

The board approved sending a letter to the Arkansas Supreme Court giving the state's high court notice of the board's intent to complete the redistricting of the Arkansas House of Representatives and Senate by Dec. 31 "if official population counts are received by September 30, 2021.

"The Board finds this timeline reasonable under the circumstances," the board wrote on its letter to Supreme Court Clerk Stacey Pectol.

Rutledge urged the public to reach out to board members' offices to provide input on the redrawing of legislative district boundaries.

In its letter to the Supreme Court, the board said Article 8 of the Arkansas Constitution of 1874, as amended by Amendments 23 and 45, tasks the Board of Apportionment with redrawing the districts by Feb. 1 immediately after a decennial census performed by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has already found compliance with this deadline impossible when the Census Bureau delivers its population count after Feb. 1 of the year in which redistricting occurs, under Carpenter v. Board of Apportionment in 1951, according to the board.

"While each Board of Apportionment has seen delays since 1951, the ongoing delay regarding 2020 Census data is far more significant than previous delays," the board said in its letter to the state's high court.

The board said the state has been informed that it can expect redistricting data by Sept. 30, 2021, so "a task that is normally performed at this time will likely performed in late fall and early winter."

The board also approved sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who oversees the Census Bureau, in which the board is "seeking the release of redistricting data as soon as possible so that we may begin to perform this important task on behalf of Arkansans."

The board said in its letter to Raimondo that "we have been informed redistricting data will be released to states by September 30, 2021, with a potential release of legacy data sometime in mid-to-late August 2021.

"This delay places an unreasonable burden on the Board as it seeks to perform its constitutional duties," the board wrote in its letter. "More importantly, this delay undermines public trust in the foundations of our democratic republic."

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