By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a voter-approved plan that stripped Arizona state lawmakers of their role in drawing congressional districts in a bid to remove partisan politics from the process.
The court, split 5-4, ruled that the ballot initiative did not violate the U.S. Constitution's requirement that state legislatures set congressional district boundaries. The ruling could pave the way for more states to adopt similar procedures. Six other states, including California, already have independent commissions.
The court's four liberals were joined by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said the Constitution's language giving legislatures the role of setting the "times, places and manner" of federal elections refers not to a specific legislative body but instead to a state’s general authority to legislate on the issue, which could include a voter-led initiative.
"Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around," Ginsburg said in a statement she read in the courtroom.
The state's Republican-controlled legislature objected to a 2000 ballot initiative endorsed by Arizona voters that set up an independent commission to determine the U.S. House of Representatives districts.
The commission was created as part of an effort to eliminate partisan redistricting by whichever party happened to control the state legislature when new congressional districts had to be drawn. The case could affect similar commissions a handful of other states.
Critics say partisan "gerrymandering" leads to House districts being drawn in a way intended to give the party controlling the legislature the maximum number of seats possible while marginalizing voters favoring the other party.
"This decision reaffirms the people's authority to rein in self-dealing legislators," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "The Constitution is not a barrier to states who want to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering."
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which represents Republican state leaders from around the country, said the right for a state's elected legislatures to decide how best to manage a state’s elections was "a principle introduced by our Founding Fathers."
In February 2014, a special three-judge panel of the U.S. district court in Arizona ruled in favor of the commission.
Four of the five members of the independent panel are selected by senior members of the legislature of both parties from a list of candidates picked by a state committee that vets appeals court judge applicants. The fifth is picked by the other four commission members from the same list.
The case is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1314.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)