TRENTON – Delayed because the pandemic messed with the census, the commission that will redraw New Jersey’s legislative district map has finally held its first meeting.

Friday’s online get-together was an organizational meeting only, without testimony from the public. But the process ahead is crucial to the makeup of the Legislature, and so all eyes are on the retired judge who’ll largely determine the results.

Retired Superior Court Judge Philip Carchman was appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner as the Legislative Apportionment Commission’s 11th member – sometimes called the tiebreaker, since the Democrats and Republicans who work on redistricting rarely agree on a map. But he said he’ll try to get them there.

“I stress settlement as one of my responsibilities,” Carchman said. “In my capacity as the 11th member, this role is critical if not paramount.”

Unlike in past redistricting cycles, Carchman is a member of the panel from the beginning. He suggested that could help him mediate a compromise map.

Not here to be judgy

Carchman said complete success would be a bipartisan map – but that two maps that meet all the legal standards would also be a success. If need be, he said he’s ready to make the hard call on which map to approve for the legislative elections in 2023 through at least 2029.

“I do not want my role to be misunderstood,” Carchman said. “I know that the apportionment process is political and legislative, and I am not assuming the role of a judicial reviewer. I reiterate that my role is not as a judge but a voting member of the commission.”

The legal standards that govern redistricting include the federal and state constitutions, federal and state court decisions and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Carchman also cited “standards that do not appear in the law, such as recognition of communities of interest, continuity of representation, competitiveness and partisan fairness, of all which serve the public interest.”

He didn’t divulge which of those criteria he considers most important.

Raw political power

Redistricting is both a basic democratic function rooted in the Constitution and one of the rawest examples of exerting political power available. Democrats took control of the Legislature after 2001 redistricting in part because their map was selected, then ‘won’ redistricting again in 2011.

Every decade after the census, the boundaries of political districts are adjusted to rebalance their populations. Unlike in congressional districts, legislative districts don’t have to start the decade exactly even – but the farther they are from the ideal level, the less likely a map will be chosen and survive legal challenges.

The Apportionment Commission’s leaders promise there will be opportunities for meaningful public input, although there aren’t yet details on how suggested maps can be submitted electronically.

“We are charged with a responsibility that is going to basically set the landscape for this state for the next 10 years,” said Democratic co-chairman LeRoy Jones Jr.

“This is just merely another step in our democracy, which is going to be transparent, which is going to be engaging,” said Jones, who is the Democratic Party state chairman and Essex County chairman.

Republican co-chairman Al Barlas said redistricting is “a fundamental tenet of our democracy.”

“Ideology, politics, geography, all of that aside, our goal as we have all discussed is to end this process with a fair and constitutional map that we can all be proud of – and most importantly that the residents of the state can be proud of,” said Barlas, the Republican Party chairman in Essex County.

“We will be seeking input from the public and various stakeholders, and as Chairman Jones said we welcome it,” he said. “We look forward to it. And quite frankly we need it and we want it.”

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There will be at least three public hearings – one each in north, central and south Jersey. In all, the panel’s bylaws require it to hold at least 10 official meetings, though not all will be open to the public. State law exempts the commission from the Open Public Meetings Act.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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