The Maine State House is seen beyond the leafless trees in the waning weeks of autumn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative leaders and the state’s redistricting commission are asking Maine’s high court to give them more time to draw maps after delays in the U.S. Census will make it impossible for lawmakers to meet their legal deadline.

The petition — filed with the the Maine Supreme Judicial Court earlier this week by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford — would keep redistricting powers with the Legislature, rather than allowing those responsibilities to default to the judicial branch next month.

They are asking the court to extend the deadline for the redistricting advisory commission to submit maps to the Legislature until 45 days after the commission receives data from the federal government. Lawmakers would then have 10 days to vote on the maps. The state’s 15-member redistricting advisory commission voted unanimously to join the petition during its first meeting on Thursday.

“It’s a bit of an unusual filing and as a result of that we don’t know exactly what the Supreme Court is going to do in response,” Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton told commission members.

The U.S. Census Bureau confirmed in late April that Maine would keep two congressional districts as the state’s population grew slightly over the past decade. But the more detailed data needed to draw new maps will not be released until mid-August, the agency said, after data collecting was delayed amid the pandemic last year.

That poses a problem because the Maine Constitution requires the Legislature to approve new maps — for both the state’s two congressional districts and state legislative districts — by June 11. If the Legislature fails to make that deadline, the redistricting process is supposed to go to the state’s high court, which then has 60 days to decide on maps.

Assuming the U.S. Census Bureau still meets its mid-August deadline to share data with states, the timeline proposed by lawmakers would allow the Legislature to approve maps by mid-October. A two-thirds majority is needed in the Legislature to approve any maps. Lawmakers do not have to use the districts proposed by the commission, but the supermajority requirement makes it difficult for either party to draw highly partisan maps.

The Maine Secretary of State’s office has requested that the final apportionment plan be completed by Nov. 15 in order to ensure the new districts are operational by Jan. 1, when candidates can begin collecting signatures to run for the Legislature.

The redistricting commission also voted Thursday to select retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander, who was nominated to the commission as its nonpartisan public member, as its chair.

Members said they will begin using 2019 Census data for initial discussions as to what districts might look like. They indicated that they were not inclined to make dramatic changes to the state’s congressional map, with Alexander saying they would pay specific attention to the populations of towns in Kennebec County, the only county currently split between the two districts.