Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court speaks at her swearing-in ceremony in Augusta on June 17. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s high court granted a petition by leading lawmakers to extend the state’s constitutionally mandated congressional and legislative redistricting timeline, allowing the Legislature to keep its redistricting powers despite census delays.

Under the Maine Constitution, lawmakers have until early June of the year following every U.S. census to approve maps drafted by an independent redistricting commission. If they fail to reach an agreement, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court then has 60 days to decide on maps that outline the shapes of Maine’s two congressional districts, its 35 state Senate districts and its 151 state House districts.

But none of those deadlines were possible after the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would not release detailed population data necessary for redistricting until August due to pandemic-related delays, leaving the Legislature with what one expert characterized as a legal “black hole.”

Legislative leadership from both parties asked the court in late May to consider extending the timeline to allow the independent redistricting commission to come up with maps after the data were released in August. Justices granted the petition on Tuesday, with Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill writing that the court should “seek to preserve the overall intent of the constitutional apportionment process to the greatest extent possible.”

Under the new timeline, the independent redistricting commission will have 45 days to come up with legislative and congressional maps after the census data are released. Lawmakers will then have 10 days to vote on those maps.

If the Census Bureau sticks to its current timeline and releases data on Aug. 16, that would set up the commission to draw maps by the end of September while the Legislature would likely vote in early October.

If the Legislature fails to reach an agreement within that updated timeframe, the redistricting power will revert to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which would have 35 days to decide on new maps. In that scenario, districts would still be decided by mid-November, meeting the request from the secretary of state’s office that apportionment be complete by Nov. 15 to ensure candidates in next year’s elections can begin collecting signatures to run for the Legislature on Jan. 1, 2022.

Maine will continue to have two congressional districts, but a few towns may shift after the 1st Congressional District has gained population over the past decade, while the 2nd District as it is currently drawn shrank slightly, according to population estimates. The apportionment commission is set to meet next on Aug. 18.

The high court also dismissed a small portion of the lawmakers’ petition, concluding that it did not have the jurisdiction to change the deadline for redistricting of Maine’s county commissioner seats.