Federal court dismisses second challenge over boundaries of Washington legislative district

Meanwhile, a group of intervenors in a related lawsuit over the 15th Legislative District’s map plan to appeal an August ruling in that case.

By: - September 8, 2023 5:30 pm

Unopened ballots await processing during the 2020 election. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

A divided panel of federal judges on Friday dismissed a second lawsuit contesting the boundaries of a Yakima Valley legislative district, saying the challenge is moot after a court ruled last month the lines are illegal and must be redrawn.

Benancio Garcia contended in his suit that Washington’s redistricting commissioners focused too much on race in crafting the map for the 15th Legislative District. He argued that such “racial gerrymandering” violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and required the boundaries be redone.

On Friday, in its 2-1 decision, the federal panel said it would not delve into the argument since U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik already invalidated the map in a separate but related case: Soto Palmer v. Hobbs.

But in an added twist on Friday, three registered voters — including state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy — who intervened in the Soto Palmer lawsuit, filed notice that they would appeal Lasnik’s ruling in that case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lasnik concluded Aug. 10 in the Soto Palmer case that the current boundaries undermine the ability of Latino voters to participate equally in elections in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

He called for the reconvening of the state’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission to come up with a new map and deliver it to the state Legislature by Jan. 8, 2024. If lawmakers don’t summon the commission into action – and it is likely they won’t – the court will be responsible for carrying out the task in time for the 2024 primary election.

Lasnik was also part of the three-judge panel that acted Friday. He joined Chief District Judge David G. Estudillo in the majority.

“Since LD 15 has been found to be invalid and will be redrawn (and therefore not used for further elections), the Court cannot provide any more relief to Plaintiff,” Estudillo wrote in the majority opinion.

The district currently encompasses parts of five counties in south-central Washington and is represented by three Republicans.

Drawing its boundaries was one of the commission’s most difficult agreements to reach before it adjourned in November 2021. Commissioners wound up creating a majority-minority district with Latinos comprising 73% of the total population and an estimated 51.5% of voting-age residents.

Plaintiffs in the related lawsuit argued that while Latinos are a slight majority of the district’s voters, the final contours included areas where their turnout is historically lower and excluded communities where Latinos are more politically active. 

Lasnik agreed in his earlier ruling that this fracturing can depress Latino turnout and weaken their voting strength.

Ybarra and the other intervenors who plan to appeal to the 9th Circuit, also wanted the map scrapped but for different reasons. Similar to Garcia, they argued that the commissioners erred by focusing too much on race when setting the boundaries. They wanted to see the map redrawn prioritizing compactness and communities of interest. Lasnik was unconvinced by their arguments in Soto Palmer v. Hobbs.

The document they filed in court on Friday was a one-page notice indicating they would appeal.

Meanwhile, U.S. Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke, in a 38-page dissent from Friday’s court decision, sharply criticized Lasnik’s earlier ruling and concluded the Garcia case should not have been thrown out. 

The Redistricting Commission, in VanDyke’s view, engaged in illegal racial gerrymandering when it drew the district lines, violating the equal protection clause.

He said his colleagues “are forcefully pulling the plug on a case that—even now—still has some life in it.” He added: “We should have found in favor of Garcia and directed the State of Washington to redraw the Legislative Map.”

This article was updated to include information about the appeal notice filed Friday by the intervenors in Soto Palmer v. Hobbs.

Editor Bill Lucia contributed to this report.

Garcia v. Hobbs - Opinion and Order

The majority ruling in the Garcia v. Hobbs case.

Garcia v. Hobbs - VanDyke Dissent

The dissent in the Garcia v. Hobbs case.

Soto Palmer v. Hobbs - Intervenors appeal

Intervenors notice of appeal in the Soto Palmer v. Hobbs case.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.