On Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Redistricting Task Force voted to give themselves more time in the already long and fraught process of redrawing the city’s district maps. But that fateful decision sharply raises the possibility that the saga will end by way of a court order.
By adding more meetings, the task force will miss a consequential April 15 deadline to submit a final map to the Board of Supervisors for approval. That requirement is outlined in the city’s charter, the legal document dictating the city’s governance. It precedes a more practical deadline, May 2, when the Department of Elections needs the final map to prepare for the next supervisorial election.
But the charter doesn’t spell out what happens if the task force misses its April 15 deadline. And that opens the city up to imminent legal challenges–and the possibility of court intervention in redistricting, one way or another.
“Any SF resident could say this task force has no authority after April 14 at midnight,” said John Trasviña, a former Dean at the University of San Francisco Law School and a former member of the city’s Elections Commission.
Such a lawsuit, if successful, would compel a judge to settle the matter—either by a court order that the task force wraps up their work as quickly as possible or by convening the parties together to finalize the map.
What that final map could look like is still up in the air. That’s partly because the task force rejected the most current version in a 4-5 vote on Wednesday night.
For days—and under intense public scrutiny—the task force had wavered over a few outstanding details, such as whether to fold the Portola neighborhood into District 10 and Seacliff to District 1. The task force kicked off the process of crunching 2020 census data, and hearing input from the public, in September 2021.
Under different circumstances, a court could opt to simply use the current draft as the final map. But because the task force just rejected a draft, it makes it far more difficult for a court to go that route, according to Trasviña.
“I think a judge is more likely to say…that the expertise is within the task force,” he added. “The most likely outcome is the commission will come back—either on their own or because the court tells them to—they’ll come back and finish their work.”
Despite ample outrage surrounding the map lines—and even allegations of improper political meddling by Mayor Breed and incumbent supervisors—it’s much less clear whether constituents who are angry about the map could successfully sue on grounds that district lines are invalid or unfair.
The City Attorney, which acts as legal counsel for the City and County of San Francisco, issued a legal analysis in March 2022 that suggests limited avenues to sue on the basis that the new district lines hurt certain racial minorities. Because of standards set forth in the federal Voting Rights Act and the demographic makeup of San Francisco’s population, the only demographic group large enough to trigger a viable voting rights challenge are Asian-American voters.
California law and the city’s charter contain other redistricting provisions. The task force must consider other “communities of interest”—a term for groups that share some affiliation, whether it be a historic district or some other shared cultural affiliation. But census data, which the task force works from, doesn’t capture affiliations like LGBTQ+ identity or the precise ethnic origins that can make up a community. And how entitled those communities are to redistricting recognition hasn’t yet been tested in court.
Meanwhile, roiling political drama has clouded the redistricting process. That was punctuated last week when the Elections Commission, in the wake of political pressure, called its three task force appointees to a hearing to determine whether the commission should remove them. Those circumstances, along with whispers and allegations of pressure by politicians to improperly sway the process, may undermine trust in the redistricting process for years to come.
But in the end, the proof is in the map. And unless the map contains a specific flaw that renders it legally invalid, palace intrigue alone doesn’t add up to a strong legal case, according to Trasviña.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a legal flaw,” he said. “The remedy for members of the Board of Supervisors interfering…is the removal of that supervisor.”
Annie Gaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org