PHOENIX (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to throw out Arizona's voter-approved system for redrawing congressional district lines - a major loss for Republicans in the Arizona Legislature that keeps the current maps in place for seven more years.
The high court upheld the constitutionality of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission's ability to draw congressional district maps, saying the power of the people to enact laws includes the ability to remove the Legislature from the process.
Voters in Arizona did just that in 2000 to stop political gerrymandering intended to officeholders or a political party in power.
Republican Senate President Andy Biggs, a major proponent of the lawsuit decided by the high court, criticized the decision.
"They are saying that if you have an initiative or referral process and the voters vote a certain way, that is an extension of the state Legislature. Which is just asinine," Biggs said. "They've created in my opinion a real interesting problem for states going forward."
Democrats who feared the Legislature would redraw the maps more in favor of the GOP hailed the decision.
"The Supreme Court decision today protects the will of the voters and will help prevent partisanship and political ambition from influencing the redistricting process," House minority leader Eric Meyer said. "Our state is better served by having a body, independent of the Legislature, in charge of this important task."
Currently there are four solidly Republican districts, two solidly Democratic and three designed to be competitive. In 2012, all three of those districts went to the Democrats in an election win that Republicans said showed the commission's maps were drawn to the other party's benefit.
Republicans wrested away the 2nd District in November, when Martha McSally beat Democrat Ron Barber by just 167 votes.
Republicans were expected to strengthen McSally's district and two others if they were allowed to draw new maps. Now, her Tucson-centered district will remain a battleground.
"I respect the court's decision today, and look forward to continuing to represent the people of Arizona's Second District," McSally said in a statement.
The two other competitive seats - the 9th District held by Kyrsten Sinema and Ann Kirkpatrick's 1st District - should remain tilted to Democrats.
Kirkpatrick has announced that she won't seek re-election and instead will challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2016. That sets up a fight for her congressional seat.
Democratic state Sen. Barbara McGuire of Kearny announced shortly after the court ruling that she was exploring a 1st District run. At least one other Democrat, Sen. Catherine Miranda, also is eyeing a possible bid for the seat. Several Republicans also are expected to seek the post.
Sinema's intentions in 2016 remain unclear.
The commission - two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent chair - redraws congressional and legislative district maps after each census. The remapping after the 2010 census became politicized early in the process, when the independent chairwoman sided with Democrats on the hiring of attorneys and mapping consultants.
Then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, removed Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, but the state Supreme Court ordered her reinstated and the commission adopted the current maps on a 3-2 vote.
Mathis said in a statement that she was thrilled with the court's decision.
"Arizona voters decided that they wanted an independent citizen commission, rather than the Legislature, to be responsible for both congressional and legislative redistricting when they passed Proposition 106 in 2000," Mathis said. "This is a victory not only for the people of Arizona, but for the entire country."