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W.Va. court could hear redistricting case

December 05, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Supreme Court might be asked to help resolve a pending challenge of the state’s new congressional districts, and those who have questioned the legality of the district lines haven’t given up the fight.

Both sides in a federal lawsuit targeting redistricting support asking the court whether the new plan complies with the West Virginia Constitution, according to court filings this week. 

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments in September that the new map violated the U.S. Constitution, but the challenge that the 2nd Congressional District failed to meet the state’s compactness requirement was not ruled upon in the federal case.

The challenged map moved one county between two of the state’s three congressional districts. The Jefferson County Commission sued, seeking an alternative map. Lawyer Thornton Cooper later joined the case.

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The West Virginia Constitution requires compact congressional districts formed of contiguous counties.

Jefferson County’s district stretches across the state from the Ohio River to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, who chaired the chamber’s Select Committee on Redistricting, said Wednesday that opponents of the redistricting plan haven’t given up fighting to have it overturned.

“If the (state) Supreme Court rules that the 2nd Congressional District is compact, then I would like to know what they consider is not compact,” Unger said.

Unger cited testimony in federal district court by West Virginia University geography professor Kenneth Martis, who called the excessive elongation of the 2nd district an “abomination.”

The three federal judges appointed to hear the redistricting case did not decide whether the districts as drawn met the state’s constitutional requirement that they be compact, but two of the three jurists advised in its memorandum opinion that “a proposal’s compactness is best evaluated in holistic terms and not by viewing one or two districts in isolation.”

“The inclusion of two or three elongated (state senate) districts among 17 may be considerably more tolerable than one among three” congressional districts, the court said, citing Martis’ testimony about the compactness of the state Senate districts.

The court’s opinion said identifying the geographic core of the 2nd District as drawn would prove virtually impossible, describing it as “snaking for the most part in single-county narrowness across the breadth of the state.” It also noted that the 2nd District cities of Charleston and Martinsburg, the county seats of the first and second most populated counties in the state, are about 300 miles apart by highway.

“The anomaly brings to mind the old football adage that when a team decides it has two starting quarterbacks, it more precisely has none,” the court said in the opinion.

Unger said that he hopes that U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s recently announced bid for the U.S. Senate will remove political pressure from the equation and that those involved will take a rational look at the redistricting issue. Capito, who represents the 2nd District, was re-elected in November to a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Anybody can look at it and see that it’s not (compact),” Unger said.

If the state Supreme Court should rule that the state’s three congressional districts are not compact, the Legislature would be tasked with redrawing the district lines, Unger said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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