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In Redistricting Work, Students Engage in the Intersection of Law, Policy and Politics

Once Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. was unanimously selected by the bipartisan New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission as its independent 13th member, he soon turned to Vice Dean Ronald Chen to serve as his counsel. The Constitutional requirement that House district boundaries be redrawn once every 10 years to reflect the results of the national census can raise difficult legal issues. And when population shifts mean the gain or loss of congressional seats, as happened in New Jersey, the political interest is particularly keen.

Redistricting meeting
Dean Farmer (right) meets with some of the 20 Rutgers law students who worked on the redistricting project.

Seeing a valuable learning opportunity for law students, Deans Farmer and Chen recruited upper-class students from the law schools at Rutgers–Newark and Rutgers–Camden to provide legal counsel services and general recommendations. Over a period of almost four months, 20 law students helped guide the commission to its adoption of a new map of 12 Congressional districts (one fewer than that mandated by the 2000 census) of equal population.

The value of their work was broadly acknowledged. As Hon. Joseph Roberts, former New Jersey Assembly Speaker who chaired the Democratic caucus on the Commission, stated at the conclusion of the process: “I want to begin by acknowledging your [John Farmer’s] hard work and commitment to the process, of the unique role that the Rutgers Law School students played. I think it was extraordinary; a great idea on the part of Dean Farmer to involve students from Rutgers and, frankly, give them a skill set and an exposure to this process so that in the next cycle we’re going to have a whole host of folks who have that experience and can contribute significantly.”

The students’ redistricting work proved to be not only an academic exercise but a practical exercise as well. In addition to applying the legal principles they learned, the students also had to act as advocates for the two parties. Most importantly, they were required to argue for positions on both sides of the aisle. As one student said, “The ability to advocate effectively for a position, regardless of whether we agreed with it ideologically, was an invaluable experience with practical effects, which was beneficial to our growth as legal thinkers.”

The Rutgers students were divided into several teams. For some, their first assignment was to draft a memorandum on current challenges to another state’s newly-adopted congressional or legislative map. That was not as easy as it may sound, as the status of the cases was often in flux. Others studied and wrote reports on New Jersey’s 13 current congressional districts, an assignment that included meetings and interviews with their specific district’s elected representative and local political leaders.

In the second phase of the project, students were assigned to research and write a memo about the legal principles of redistricting, including protecting various communities of interest, partisan fairness, compactness, contiguity, compactness, and continuity of representation.

For several students, the most intensive assignment was to become competent in “Maptitude,” the mapping software used for redistricting. The mapping team met with students who had researched the existing congressional districts and discussed their conclusions as to where district lines should and should not be drawn in order to preserve the state’s diverse communities of interest. The software enabled drawing variations on the existing districts to aid in future discussions with the entire Rutgers redistricting team.

In early December, some students met in between studying for exams to focus Dean Farmer’s thinking in his discussions with the Republican and Democratic commissioners and their staffs. Later in the month during the final week-long negotiation session at New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel, students reviewed the demographic and political data provided by each party and used the mapping software to analyze and critique maps developed by the partisan teams in order to ensure they were in compliance with the redistricting principles the courts have applied in voting cases.

Participating Rutgers–Newark & Rutgers–Camden Students
Joseph Bock Alexandra James
Craig Bronsnick Nicholas Jensen
John Burzynski Nicole Johnson
Isabel Chou Ernest King
Timothy D’Arduini Eugene Kirman
Michael Edelman (Camden) Christopher Martin
Kevin Fitzpatrick Henal Patel
Andrew Gimigliano Brian Quigley (Camden)
Mark Heinzelmann Michael Scarduzio (Camden)
Benjamin Hochberg James Woodson

One student found that his research of the Ninth Congressional District and the surrounding areas in northern New Jersey proved very helpful in understanding “what came to be seen as inevitable by the middle of the final week: the elimination of a northern New Jersey district because of the slower population growth in this area of the state.”

On December 23, with Dean Farmer casting the tie-breaking vote, the Redistricting Commission adopted a new map, more than three weeks before the official deadline. Wrapping up the official process, Dean Farmer said: “I personally have been greatly assisted by counsel provided by 20 law students from Rutgers in Newark and Camden, under the supervision of former Public Advocate, current Vice Dean Ron Chen. I cannot thank them enough.”

Rutgers law students had enjoyed the rare experience of researching and applying redistricting law, of discussing the legal issues with some of New Jersey’s most powerful elected officials and political players, and of witnessing the negotiating and compromising that occur in such a politically important event. Finally, after months of work and the nail-biting of the final week, they were free to enjoy their winter break.

As one student characterized the project: “Overall, it was a great learning experience and just one more example of the opportunities that Rutgers–Newark School of Law provides for law students interested to the gateway where law, policy, and politics meet in New Jersey.”