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BRENDA BLAGG: The benefits of stature

Dickey appointed as result of political, legal experience by Brenda Blagg | June 16, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Betty Dickey got the job.

The Arkansas Board of Apportionment has named the former Supreme Court justice as its redistricting coordinator.

Her hire had been suggested late last month by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who chairs the board that also includes Secretary of State John Thurston and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

Dickey's selection was announced after a 35-minute executive session of the board on June 7, when members interviewed Dickey.

She apparently overcame any objection that Rutledge may have had, since Rutledge made the motion to hire her. The attorney general had said at the board's inaugural meeting that the coordinator needed to be "technologically savvy."

Drawing the new maps, Rutledge maintained, is quite challenging.

She is absolutely right about that. It always has been challenging, even before there was technology to assist in slicing and dicing the state into 35 Senate districts and 100 House of Representatives districts.

The chore comes along once a decade after the U.S. Census is complete. Political boundaries must shift to match the changes of population within the state.

Where the population has grown denser, districts must shrink in geographic size. The reverse is true for districts that are losing population. Their boundaries must stretch to pick up additional people.

The goal is to make each district as nearly as practicable equal in population, an effort to preserve the one person, one vote principle.

Redistricting the Legislature always falls to the sitting governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

It's one of the reasons the political parties really want to win those offices in the elections leading up to reapportionment. Where these boundaries are drawn can theoretically impact the balance of power in the Legislature. At least it has in the past.

In Arkansas now, Republicans have a lock on all three of these constitutional offices and really strong majorities in both the House and the Senate.

That doesn't mean there won't be political skirmishes over where the legislative boundaries get drawn in 2021.

The fights may just be between Republican factions -- or incumbent colleagues thrown into the same districts, rather than between Republicans and Democrats.

There will be arguments on where the lines finally get drawn and strong reactions from the waiting public, which may be why Gov. Hutchinson wanted someone with Dickey's political and legal experience to coordinate the work.

Dickey, who started work this week, will have time to train with the technology and get the office organized while the state awaits the breakdown of Census numbers within the state.

She'll work with assigned staff from the offices of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general as well as with the constitutional officers themselves to get this job done.

Much of the work requires those new population numbers, which are not due until Sept. 30, although the board has officially asked federal authorities to release the data as soon as possible.

The board has also notified the Arkansas Supreme Court of the board's intent to complete legislative redistricting by Dec. 31.

All of this is happening on a much-delayed timetable caused by having to complete the Census during a pandemic.

It really can't be put off much more since potential candidates for these newly defined districts will make their decisions to run and filing for office in early 2022.

Dickey understands such ramifications. The 81-year-old does have a wealth of experience in both politics and the law.

She got her law degree after raising four children and working in her former husband's congressional office.

In 1995, she was elected as the state's first female prosecuting attorney, serving Jefferson and Lincoln counties.

Dickey, who made an unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 1998, was soon appointed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, another Republican, to the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

By 2003, he had made her his office's chief legal counsel and later that year named her to finish the term of a retiring chief justice of the Supreme Court. She was the first female to hold either position in Arkansas.

Dickey was subsequently named by Huckabee to fill the rest of the term of the associate justice who was elected as chief justice. (As an appointee, she was ineligible to seek election to the position.)

Gov. Hutchinson, who appointed Dickey to serve as a special justice in a later case, touted her credentials after her selection as reapportionment coordinator.

It was important to him and the board, he said, that she can present the work of the board "in a very fair, judicious manner."

Part of the job will be the presentation of the proposed maps to the Legislature and the public. But Dickey's political and legal training ought to help, too, in managing the all-too-predictable squabbles during their development.

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