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Redistricting a victory for Jefferson County

January 13, 2012
John Doyle , Shepherdstown Chronicle

Last week a three-judge panel assembled to hear the lawsuit in federal court by the Jefferson County Commission over this year's congressional redistricting ruled in favor of Jefferson County. The panel found the congressional redistricting plan approved by the Legislature this past summer unconstitutional because the population variance between districts is too great. The court gave the Legislature until January 17 to submit an acceptable plan. If one had not been submitted by then the court would draw one itself.

The leadership of the Legislature has appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. This would take several months if pursued to its climax. The Legislative leadership also petitioned the trial panel to stay implementation of its order. Earlier this week the panel denied the request for a stay. The court did remove the January 17 deadline but that is of little significance. The Legislature must still draw new districts in time for the primary election in May. The filing of official declarations of candidacy has already commenced and ends January 29 unless the Legislature gives candidates more time.

The court's decision to rule unconstitutional the congressional redistricting done by the Legislature represents a great victory for Jefferson County on behalf of the entire Eastern Panhandle. The panel's refusal to stay implementation is an additional victory.

Twenty years ago West Virginia lost one of its four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Our congressman at the time was Harley O. Staggers, Jr. of Mineral County, one of the counties in the western portion (I call it the "highlands" portion) of the eight county greater Eastern Panhandle.

The redistricting of that year resulted in six of the eight counties being placed in a district that snaked all the way from Harpers Ferry to the Ohio River just north of Huntington. It included the state capital of Charleston.

The other two counties (Mineral and neighboring Grant) were put in a district with the Northern Panhandle, Parkersburg and the "tri-cities" area of Morgantown, Fairmont and Clarksburg.

Folks around here were livid. It was clear that Charleston would dominate the district. And the eight-county Eastern Panhandle had never in the state's history been divided between congressional districts.

Ten years ago the Legislature made minor adjustments but no significant changes to the congressional district lines.

This year Sen. Herb Snyder tried to get the Legislature to re-draw the districts so that at least the Eastern Panhandle would be reunited. He also argued that it made no sense to have Martinsburg in the same district as Charleston (300 miles away).

No luck. The Legislature made the simplest change possible, moving Mason County from the Second District (ours) to the Third (the southernmost counties in the state). I voted against the plan when it came to the House of Delegates, as did Del. Tiffany Lawrence.

The problem with the Legislature's action, said the two judges who voted to rule the plan unconstitutional, was that several other plans had been presented to the Legislature that had much closer population variances between districts than the plan chosen.

The Legislature had been operating under the assumption that any plan with less than a 1% population variance from the largest district to the smallest would be constitutionally permissible. No, said the 2-1 majority of the panel, it's not. The first order of business must be to get population variances as close to zero as possible. Then you can consider things like honoring existing political boundaries, communities of interest and other factors.

My congratulations go to Sen, Snyder, who led the fight in the Legislature, and to the Jefferson County Commission, who brought the lawsuit. I particularly commend the two lawyers who argued the case for Jefferson, Stephen Skinner and David Hammer. They did a masterful job.

Now we'll see if they get to once again carry Jefferson County's standard into legal battle, this time before the United States Supreme Court.



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