New Mexico congressional map that was approved by Democrats can stand, a judge says

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FILE - Rep. Yvette Herrell speaks to a group of tribal officials during a political forum hosted by the All Pueblo Council of Governors on Oct. 14, 2022, in Albuquerque, N.M. A New Mexico state judge ruled against a Republican Party challenge of new congressional boundaries approved by Democrats that divvied up a politically conservative oil-producing region, in an order published Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. New Mexicos 2nd District is one of about a dozen that are in the spotlight nationally as Republicans campaign to hold onto their slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. – New congressional boundaries approved by Democrats that divided up a politically conservative oil-producing region in New Mexico don’t violate the state constitution, a judge ruled in an order published Friday.

Judge Fred Van Soelen wrote that the redistricting plan enacted by Democratic state lawmakers in 2021 succeeded in substantially diluting votes of their political opponents, but that the changes fell short of “egregious” gerrymandering.

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“Because ‘entrenchment’ is the touchstone of an egregious partisan gerrymander which the New Mexico Constitution prohibits, the court finds that the congressional redistricting map enacted under Senate Bill 1 does not violate the plaintiff's equal protection rights,” the judge wrote.

An attorney for the state Republican Party indicated that the decision will be appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. A final decision could influence which party represents a congressional swing district along the U.S. border with Mexico where partisan control has flipped three times in three elections.

Under the map that's being challenged, Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez in 2022 ousted a first-term Republican incumbent by a competitive 0.7% margin of victory. New Mexico’s 2nd District is one of about a dozen that are in the spotlight nationally as Republicans campaign to keep their slim U.S. House majority in 2024.

Carter Harrison, an attorney for the state GOP, highlighted the judge’s conclusion that the predominant purpose of New Mexico’s redistricting plan was to entrench Democratic Party officials in power by diluting votes.

“The court ultimately determined that the closeness of the 2022 election in Congressional District 2 — an election where an incumbent Republican and longtime officeholder and candidate in the region lost her election to a Democratic challenger, in a midterm election where Democrats held the White House and lost substantial ground nationally — precludes a finding that this gerrymander rises to unconstitutional levels,” attorney Carter Harrison said in an email Friday. “We respectfully disagree. ... We’re proud of this position, which we believe should be vindicated on appeal.”

Democrats hold every statewide elected office in New Mexico and its three congressional seats.

Leading Democratic state senators said they “respect and appreciate” the judge’s decision and that their redistricting plan creates “three competitive urban/rural congressional districts.”

“We believe and continue to believe that competition in elections is healthy,” said the message from legislators including Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe.

During trial last week at a Lovington courthouse in an oil-producing region near the Texas state line, the Republican Party argued that Democrats cut Republican lawmakers out of deliberations as they divvied up a conservative stronghold among three congressional districts that all favor Democrats. An attorney for the Democratic-led Legislature argued that the 2nd District is still competitive.

Van Soelen ruled against the Republican Party but also rebuffed arguments from Democrats that their map was welcomed in a conservative stronghold. He said the Democratic-led Legislature provided no evidence to back up its assertions that the oil industry would benefit from a map that divvies up the industry in the southeastern corner of the state to provide “multiple voices at the federal level."

Republican legislators, including a retired oil-pipeline manager, testified at trial that the new congressional map would limit the industry's influence.

Though Republicans won control of the House from Democrats in the 2022 election, the closely divided chamber more accurately reflects the ratio of Republicans to Democrats among voters nationally than at any time in recent years, according to an Associated Press analysis.

New Mexico was among several states to use a citizens advisory board with the aim of tempering political inclinations — without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers.

Groups, including Common Cause, said the process resulted in fairer maps. But Republicans in the state's legislative minority argued that they were effectively shut out of the final legislative process amid conversations beyond legislative hearings via email and text messages that were subpoenaed at trial.

Democrats gained a 12% advantage in voter registrations over Republicans in the newly drawn 2nd District, where major party registration previously was roughly evenly split, Judge Van Soelen noted.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declined at trial to defend the congressional map that she signed into law, citing other pressing demands on her legal team. Her request to delay the trail was denied.