Students say the process gave them a behind-the-scenes look into the gateway where law, policy, and politics mix

When voters go to the polls this spring to elect congressional officials, they’ll have Rutgers law students to thank for playing a key role in the redistricting process.

Every 10 years, the state’s congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the latest census data. After John J. Farmer, dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark,was selected by the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission as its independent 13th member, he recruited 20 law students from both Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark to help.

Redistricting is a process that 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.

For nearly four months this fall, the students helped guide the commission, providing legal counsel services and general recommendations, with assistance from Vice Dean Ronald Chen, who served as Farmer’s counsel. The result was a new map of 12 Congressional districts of equal population – one fewer than that mandated by the 2000 census.

'It was a great idea on the part of Dean Farmer to involve students and give them a skill set and an exposure to this process, so in the next cycle, we’re going to have a whole host of folks who have that experience and can contribute significantly.'   –  Former Assembly speaker Joseph Roberts.

Former New Jersey Assembly speaker Joseph Roberts, who chaired the Democratic caucus on the Commission, commended Farmer and the Rutgers students for their work.

“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,” Roberts said.

The students’ redistricting effort was not just academic. In addition to applying legal principles they, they also acted as advocates for both parties, arguing positions for Democrats and Republicans.

John Farmer

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. Others wrote reports on New Jersey’s 13 current congressional districts, an assignment that included meetings and interviews with their 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. Issues included protecting communities of interest, partisan fairness, compactness, contiguity, compactness, and continuity of representation.

Several students learned about “Maptitude,” the mapping software used for redistricting. The mapping team met with students who had researched the existing congressional districts and discussed their conclusions on redrawing district lines to preserve the state’s diverse communities of interest.

During the final weeklong negotiation session at New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel, students reviewed the demographic and political data provided by each party. They used mapping software to analyze and critique maps developed by the partisan teams to ensure they were in compliance with court-mandated redistricting principles.         

One student discovered his research of the Ninth Congressional District and the surrounding areas in northern New Jersey informed the decision to drop one district because of slower population growth in that area.

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 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.”

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 in the gateway where law, policy, and politics meet in New Jersey.”