SANTA FE – New Mexico Supreme Court justices grappled Monday with questions about their authority to intervene – and the criteria that might be used if they decide to do so – in a case that hinges on the political fairness of the state’s redrawn congressional map.

For now, the state’s highest court plans to take its time in coming up with answers.

After more than an hour of oral arguments, the Supreme Court did not issue an immediate ruling on the Republican-backed lawsuit that argues the Democratic-approved congressional map – approved during a 2021 special session – represents a political gerrymander.

“This is an issue of significant importance and we want to be deliberative,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said in announcing the court’s decision to not issue a same-day ruling.

It’s unclear when a decision might be issued, as the Supreme Court has in the past deliberated for months on some high-profile cases before releasing a decision.

The Monday court hearing came just two months after Democrats swept all three state congressional seats for just the third time since 1982, including a narrow victory by Democrat Gabe Vasquez over incumbent Republican Yvette Herrell in the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District.

Attorneys for the state GOP and other plaintiffs who filed the court challenge argued Monday the election results offered evidence of top-ranking Democrats’ intent to redraw the state’s congressional district boundary lines in their party’s favor.

However, lawyers representing the Democrats named in the case responded by saying the redrawn congressional map does not violate the federal Voting Rights Act or other established redistricting guidelines, such as the one-person, one-vote principle.

By wading into the case, Supreme Court justices would be intruding into legislative territory without a ready rule book, said Sara Sanchez, an Albuquerque attorney who is representing the lawmakers on contract.

“This court should not agree to enter that political thicket,” Sanchez said.

The lawsuit was initially filed in January 2022 by the state Republican Party and seven other plaintiffs, who argued the congressional map approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a month earlier intentionally chopped up Republican voting strongholds in southeast New Mexico in order to obtain a partisan advantage.

A state District Court judge in Clovis was initially assigned the case, but it was taken over by the Supreme Court last summer after the Governor’s Office – along with top-ranking Democratic lawmakers – asked the state’s highest court to intervene in order to resolve underlying legal questions.

During Monday’s court hearing, judges voiced concern over the possible precedent of their ruling in the case and what criteria might be used to determine when political gerrymandering goes overboard.

Specifically, Justice David Thomson expressed misgivings about the request from Daniel Gallegos, the attorney representing the state GOP, that justices consider partisan factors in the case, while Justice Briana Zamora questioned whether a ruling to dismiss the lawsuit could bar the Supreme Court from hearing future similar cases.

For her part, Bacon said it’s likely the arguments would be reversed if Republicans held a majority over Democrats in the Legislature.

“I’ve been around the block a few times – you all would be making exactly the opposite arguments,” she said.

In court filings in the run-up to Monday’s hearing, attorneys representing the top Democratic lawmakers and the governor claimed the new map succeeded in creating more competitive districts, as Vasquez defeated Herrell by just 1,350 votes.

In addition, the state’s two other Democratic U.S. House members – Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández – both won election by smaller margins than Democrats had won their respective seats in 2020.

But top GOP officials accused Democrats of engineering Herrell’s ouster by moving parts of Albuquerque’s South Valley and West Side into her congressional district, while shifting Roswell and parts of Hobbs into other districts.

In their court challenge, the Republican Party and other plaintiffs also claimed the new congressional map violates the equal protection clause of the state Constitution.

They asked the Supreme Court to strike down the newly-drawn map and direct the District Court judge to oversee the drawing of fairer boundary lines.

Dan Boyd, Albuquerque Journal Capitol Bureau Chief