Judicial panel to hear Jefferson County's appeal of W.Va. congressional redistricting plan

December 01, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A three-judge panel will hear the Jefferson County Commission's federal challenge of the state Legislature's reapportionment of the state's three congressional districts earlier this year.

John Preston Bailey, chief judge for the Northern District of West Virginia, district Judge Irene C. Berger from the Southern District and 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert B. King were designated to preside in the case by the 4th Circuit Chief Judge, William B. Traxler Jr., according to an order filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg.

The lawsuit filed Nov. 4 by the Jefferson County Commission and Commissioners Patricia Noland and Dale Manuel, individually, names West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler and House Speaker Richard Thompson as defendants.

Attorneys for the defendants have not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, which claims lawmakers adopted a redistricting plan that had too great a difference in population among the three congressional districts, and also failed to draw districts that were as geographically compact as possible.

The plaintiffs have asked the court to toss out the redistricting plan approved by lawmakers and enter an order "adopting a plan offered in the state Legislature that is most compact and has the least variance in population."

While the federal lawsuit is pending, the state Supreme Court last week rejected petitions that challenged the new district maps for the state Senate and House of Delegates.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court claims the newly redrawn congressional districts violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution because the plaintiffs and other residents in the 2nd Congressional District have been placed in an overpopulated congressional district, "thus diluting their vote."

The lawsuit also alleges the plan that was adopted creates a "non-compact" 2nd Congressional District that "runs the entire width of the state from Jefferson County in the tip of the Eastern Panhandle to Jackson County, on the Ohio River."

Filed by attorneys Stephen G. Skinner and David M. Hammer, the lawsuit cites a plan by state Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, that proposed the three congressional districts be redrawn so there would be 618,555 people in the 1st district, 618,298 in the 2nd and 616,141 in the 3rd.

The population variance among the districts in Snyder's plan is 0.39 percent or 2,414 people, which was about half the adopted plan's deviation.

The state Constitution requires that each congressional district contain "as nearly as may be, an equal number of population ..."

The plan that was adopted placed 615,991 people in the 1st district, 620,862 in the 2nd and 616,141 in the 3rd, for a variance of 0.79 percent or 4,871 people, according to the lawsuit.

Snyder's plan also would have placed all eight eastern West Virginia counties in one congressional district for the first time since they were divided between the first and second congressional districts in 1991 apportionment.

In an attached exhibit filed with the federal lawsuit, Senate Majority Leader John Unger noted the population variance between the congressional districts has continued to increase with each apportionment — from 0.09 percent in 1991 and 0.22 percent in 2001 to the 0.79 percent deviation in the 2011 plan.

"This congressional plan was not done in the best interest of the people, but instead it was done solely in the best interest of our elected congressional delegation," Unger said in a written explanation of his vote against the adopted redistricting plan.

"At no time in the history of the state did the Eastern Panhandle region ever connect with the Kanawha Valley region in a congressional or other district," said Unger, who represents the 16th Senatorial District with Snyder.

Snyder's plan, proposed as an amendment, was defeated 17-14 in the state Senate. Among those voting against Snyder's plan were 15th District Sens. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, and Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, who represent a portion of Berkeley County and all of Morgan County.

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