A panel of federal judges on Tuesday voided West Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan and told the Legislature and the governor that it would impose a new blueprint if they do not come up with an alternative by Jan. 17.
In a 2-1 ruling, the judges concluded that the plan violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause because the state’s three congressional districts aren’t as equal as they should or could have been. U.S. District Judge John Bailey dissented.
The plan, which was approved by the Legislature in August in a special session, shifted Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd District and left the 1st District untouched.
Under the plan, the 2nd District, the most populous with 620,962 people, exceeds the mean by 3,197, a variance of 0.79 percent. Seven alternative proposals had less severe variances, the judges said.
Lawyers for House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, had argued that a U.S. District Court decision upheld the state’s 1971 congressional redistricting plan, which included a similar population variance.
But the judges said the state was facing relatively large population disparities after the 1970 Census that cost it a congressional seat.
“The times, as Bob Dylan once proclaimed, they are a-changing, and what once was characterized as ‘minor’ may now be considered ‘major.’ Put simply, (Senate Bill 1008) was not enacted in conformance with the Constitution,” they wrote.
States reviewed their legislative and U.S. House of Representatives districts following the 2010 Census. The judges said 15 other states have enacted or are in the process of enacting redistricting proposals with zero variances.
“The bedrock legal principles may not have changed, but the precision with which they are applied undoubtedly has,” the judges wrote in Tuesday’s ruling.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Jefferson County Commission. Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper later joined the case. The 2nd District includes both Jefferson County in the Eastern Panhandle and Kanawha County in the western part of the state.
“After 20 years of a gerrymandered district that basically split the Eastern Panhandle, we are excited that the court has overturned this redistricting,” said Stephen Skinner, attorney for the commissioners.
The defendants in the lawsuit have three options: appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, let the Legislature work on a new plan that meets the standards established by the court or allow the court to choose an interim plan.
“We are reviewing our options,” said Anthony Majestro, an attorney for Thompson.
Skinner said it would be a challenge for the Legislature to adopt a new plan by the deadline.
“We would hope they could get it done in a way that closes it to further challenge,” he said.
Associated Press writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this report from Richmond, Va.