Federal judges remove Jan. 17 deadline for West Virginia congressional redistricting, deny stay

By westvirginia on January 10, 2012
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By Steven Allen Adams | West Virginia Watchdog

CHARLESTON — A three-judge federal panel that ruled last week that West Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan violates the U.S. Constitution denied a stay requested by state officials, but lifted a Jan. 17 deadline to come up with a new plan.

In an eight-page order, the three-judge panel denied the stay, saying that state officials would likely not succeed in an appeal of their earlier decision before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, they lifted the Jan. 17 deadline, saying that they felt the appeal would not hurt other elections in the state, and that the state could move congressional candidate filing dates if needed.

“In light of the defendant’s display of confidence, we no longer perceive any pressing need, in the absence of state action, to impose a remedy by a specified time,” the ruling said.

The panel will make no decisions on congressional maps for the state until the Supreme Court rules on the state’s appeal. However, the panel prohibited the state from conducting the 2012 congressional election under the plan passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last August.

Gov. Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, named as parties in a suit brought by the Jefferson County Commission along with House Speaker Rick Thompson (D-Wayne) and Senate President Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall), have allowed lawyers for the state Senate and House of Delegates to lead defense of the state’s redistricting plan.

The four defendants in the case – Tomblin, Tennant, Thompson, and Kessler – announced Thursday that they would ask for a stay the decision and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thompson was still reading through the ruling and was unavailable for comment. Senate President Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall), after reading the ruling, said the it gives the Legislature breathing room while officials come up with the next step.

“I think it’s helpful and also beneficial that the court recognizes that the January 17 deadline was overly ambitious and maybe potentially impossible for the Legislature to meet,” Kessler said. “It never felt like it would give us enough time to pass a bill, let alone have it open to any public comment.”

Kessler said he hadn’t talked to Thompson yet about continuing the appeal, though he said that it was important for the Legislature to defend its redistricting plan and not allow the courts to dictate how the borders are drawn.

“They recognize if we win on appeal the order is annulled, and if we lose on appeal they are deferring to the Legislature to enact a plan rather than the court, which I also think is a positive,” Kessler said.

Last week, the three-judge panel ruled the state’s congressional redistricting plan violates the U.S Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by not having equal representation in each district. The Jefferson County Commission filed suit against the redistricting plan, citing population differences between each district and the continued break-up of the Eastern Panhandle, which gained population according to the 2010 Census.

The decision likely means the postponing of the state’s congressional elections, as the current plan was ruled unconstitutional and the plan prior to redistricting is unacceptable. Several lawmakers have come up with draft congressional plans, including Senate Majority Leader John Unger, who calls his plan the “More Perfect Plan.”

Unger presented the first “Perfect Plan” during the August redistricting special session. That plan had almost equal population in all three congressional districts, butwould have moved Rep. Shelley Moore Capito out of the 2nd congressional district and into Rep. David McKinley‘s 1st congressional district. Both Captio and McKinley are Republicans. The Unger plan would have also divided Kanawha and Harrison counties between congressional districts.

The Unger plan was amended Sen. Clark Barnes (R-Randolph) to move Mason County to the 3rd congressional district, held by Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat. As a result, the new 2nd district has 3,197 more people than it should, while the 1st district had a shortfall of 1,674 people: a variance of .79 percent, which the courts said was U.S Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by not having equal representation in each district.

Unger’s “More Perfect Plan” takes splits small portions of Taylor and Randolph counties, but it keeps Capito and McKinley in separate districts and makes the Eastern Panahandle whole again. Unger said he could present his legislation sometime this week at the earliest.

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Posted under Featured, Federal, Governor, House of Delegates, Legislation, Legislature, News, Politics, Redistricting, Secretary of State, State Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, West Virginia.
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