by Karl Kurtz
Alan Rosenthal, a pre-eminent scholar on American state legislatures, finds himself in the middle of the kinds of political conflicts that he has written eloquently about throughout his career as a political scientist at Rutgers University. He has been appointed by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court to serve as the 11th, tie-breaking member of the State Legislative Apportionment Commission. The other 10 members consist of a power line-up of five appointees each by the Democratic and Republican state party chairs, including the speaker of the Assembly, a majority leader, a state party chair who also serves in the Legislature, a confidante of the governor's and several current and former legislators.
New Jersey is one of four states that will hold state legislative elections later this year, so they are under greater pressure than most states to get redistricting done quickly. Under the New Jersey Constitution, the 10-member commission had one month from the release of Census data for the state (in early February) to reach agreement on a plan for state legislative districts. The failure of the commission members to accomplish this goal triggered the appointment of Rosenthal by the chief justice on March 3. The judge had consulted about this appointment with both parties, which agreed on Rosenthal as a suitable 11th member. Rosenthal had served in similar roles in 1991 and 2001 for the state's congressional (not state legislative) redistricting process. The 11-member commission now has until April 4 to come up with a plan. If they fail, New Jersey's districts will be drawn by the courts.
Rosenthal, the intellectual guru of NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, is a frequent speaker before state legislative audiences, and his books have been widely read in the legislative community. His mantra, shared by the Trust, is "Representative democracy works, not perfectly but better than any conceivable alternative form of government."
So I wasn't surprised when he said in a phone conversation today:
Maybe I should wait until the end of this process before I say this, but I think New Jersey's redistricting process is working. Both sides agree on the standards that we need to meet--and we will meet them. They disagree primarily on issues of minority representation. And each party is rightfully seeking some advantage in the drawing of districts. My objective is to find one map that everyone will agree on. I think there's a good chance that we will reach that goal--but I wouldn't advise anyone to bet on it.
Rosenthal, 78, added with a laugh, "It's definitely a game for grown-ups. Only trouble is I'm not sure I've grown up yet."
Last week the Star-Ledger ran an engaging story about Rosenthal that reveals some of his personal background and history and elaborates on his philosophy about the political process of redistricting.
Photo credit: Jennifer Hulshizer for the Star-Ledger