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Unger looks to public for support in redistricting fight

January 14, 2002

Unger looks to public for support in redistricting fight



By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI
kimy@herald-mail.com


SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia State Sen. John Unger spent Saturday afternoon explaining his opposition to the new map of legislative districts and asking the public whether he should take his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unger made stops at Charles Town City Hall, Webber's Store on Mission Road and finally at the Shepherdstown Men's Club, where about 18 people gathered to listen to the senator.

Unger said a panel of three federal judges rejected his challenge to West Virginia's new map of legislative districts in December because of "legislative deference."

The judges found that although the Legislature made some questionable decisions in drawing district lines, the overall burden to meet constitutional requirements was met.

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The senator was one of several legislators and residents who sued the state last September. They argued that the new redistricting plan trades the guaranteed rights of equal representation in growing counties in the Eastern Panhandle for the status quo of political dominance in shrinking Kanawha County.

Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, the state capital, kept its four senators - twice as many as any other district - despite a slight loss in population.

Legal fees for the appeal could cost $15,000 and judges could decide not to hear the case or overturn it, he said.

Unger asked the attendees at the Shepherdstown Men's Club if they support an appeal and the majority raised their hands.

He said he was warned that if he did appeal, it would alienate the leadership of the Senate, which would harm the Eastern Panhandle.

Unger said he responded that they don't have much to lose. If the Senate leaders valued the Eastern Panhandle they wouldn't have drawn the legislative boundaries as they did, he said.

The Eastern Panhandle needs to stand up for itself and command respect, he said.

"In the long run, it's going to help us instead of hurt us," he said.

Lawyers for legislative leaders contended the final product is the best compromise in a complex process in which legislators have to adjust districts experiencing population swings with as little disruption as possible.

The judges agreed, ruling that the Legislature's new map met a list of five conflicting objectives by maintaining Kanawha's districts.

The new Senate map faced a challenge largely because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the difference between the smallest district and the largest district cannot be more than 10 percentage points.

The Senate map slightly exceeded that, with Kanawha County's two overlapping districts nearly 6 percent below the ideal population of 106,374 residents and several other eastern districts nearly 5 percent larger than ideal. West Virginia has 17 Senate districts and 1.8 million people in the latest census numbers.

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