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SANTA FE – A state judge in Clovis rejected a motion Tuesday that would have tossed out New Mexico’s new congressional map just days before the first ballots are due in the mail.
But District Judge Fred Van Soelen also refused to dismiss the case, leaving it alive with the potential to affect future elections after the June 7 primary.
In a pair of rulings Tuesday, the judge said the Republican Party of New Mexico and other plaintiffs had made a “strong, well-developed case that (the new map) is a partisan gerrymander created in an attempt to dilute Republican votes in Congressional races in New Mexico.”
Nevertheless, he said, he wasn’t making a final ruling on the merits of the case and would need to hear more argument from the attorneys.
The judge also said it’s too late to change the map so close to the primary election. The first ballots go out Saturday.
“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 the candidates’ interests,” Van Soelen said in a ruling denying the requested preliminary injunction.
He delivered the rulings a day after hearing arguments from the state Republican Party and other plaintiffs – who described the new map as an obvious and illegal partisan gerrymander designed to weaken the voting strength of conservatives in southeastern New Mexico.
Attorneys for Democratic legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in turn, said the map met every constitutional requirement and cannot be overturned through judicial action.
In decisions issued Tuesday, Van Soelen rejected the Republican Party’s motion for a preliminary injunction to prohibit use of the new districts in this year’s primary and general elections.
The motion had asked the judge to order the state – at least for now – to conduct elections under a map recommended by the state’s Citizen Redistricting Committee, which was prohibited from using partisan data during its meetings last year.
Despite ruling against the proposed injunction, Van Soelen agreed to keep the redistricting lawsuit alive.
He denied motions to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit will continue, he said, and he will hear “further argument at a later date” before making a ruling that might affect future elections. The map is set to be in place for 10 years, until results come in after the 2030 census.
Van Soelen said the plaintiffs had made a strong, well-developed case that the map doesn’t “follow traditional districting principles, including a lack of compactness, lack of preservation of communities of interest, and failure to take into consideration political and geographic boundaries.”
But the judge stopped short of ruling that political gerrymandering would violate the equal protection clause of the state Constitution, as alleged by the GOP and other plaintiffs. He suggested it was an “undeveloped area” of law not definitively answered by previous court rulings.
Attorneys for Lujan Grisham have argued that a claim of partisan gerrymandering is a political question, not something a court can decide. Nothing in state law or the Constitution, they said, establishes a standard for how a court would decide what constitutes political gerrymandering.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett described the judge’s action as a win for all voters by ensuring that “this attempt to interfere with this year’s imminent elections will not go forward.”
In a written statement, she added: “Protecting New Mexicans’ access to the ballot box is critical – any attempt to prevent New Mexicans from participating in our democratic process goes against our values.”
The state Republican Party also hailed the judge’s rulings as a victory and recognition of the strength of their lawsuit.
“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,” Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said in a written statement.
Van Soelen took over the case just three weeks ago after a series of other judges recused themselves or were bumped from the case.
The primary election is June 7, but the first ballots – for overseas voters – are due in the mail by Saturday.
Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the agency was pleased it wouldn’t have to change maps just before the election.
Any “changes at this late hour,” he said, “would have led to disruption, increased cost, and voter confusion.”
The state’s new congressional map was sponsored by Democratic lawmakers in a special session last year and signed into law by Lujan Grisham.
It reorients New Mexico’s political landscape by splitting Albuquerque into two congressional districts and spreading the conservative oil patch and agricultural region of southeastern New Mexico into three districts.
The Republican Party contends the map was illegally designed to damage the reelection chances of the only Republican in the state’s delegation: Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo.
Under the new map, all three of the state’s congressional districts include a mix of urban and rural areas, and all three seats lean Democratic, according to analysis of past elections by redistricting contractor Research & Polling, Inc.
Supporters of the map say it would ensure every member of the delegation responds to a diverse set of constituents.