The West Virginia Legislature's modest redesign of the state's three congressional districts in 2011 is constitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday.
The court reversed a January lower federal court ruling that threatened to upend an incumbent-friendly redistricting map. In an unsigned opinion, the nation's high court has essentially ended more than a year of debate over redistricting.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said redistricting is "behind us."
"It appears to be consistent with the Legislature's power as a separate and equal branch of government to handle redistricting decisions," Kessler said of the eight-page ruling.
The court's decision has little immediate affect other than to silence doubt in West Virginia.
But critics of the state's plan said the ruling could have long-term implications by making gerrymandering easier in the future. This year's congressional elections are proceeding according to the 2011 maps, which did little to reconfigure the political terrain held by Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
All three are up for election this year.
The Supreme Court reversed a three-judge panel's bombshell ruling in January.
That lower court ruling threatened to reopen contentious wrangling over the congressional maps, which are normally redrawn only every decade following the U.S. Census.
The panel said in a 2-1 ruling that the state's plan, drawn up by the Legislature in August 2011, violated the U.S. Constitution, which requires congressional districts with populations as equal as practicable.
Eastern Panhandle lawyer Stephen Skinner brought the suit against the state on behalf of the Jefferson County Commission.
Other states divide counties and have variations of only a handful of people among their congressional districts. In West Virginia, there is a variation of several thousand people but the 55 counties each remain wholly within a congressional district.
State lawmakers said they wanted to protect the districts of the incumbents and avoid splitting counties.
The Supreme Court said the state could draw somewhat unequal districts because the Legislature has a legitimate interest in avoiding contests between incumbents and not dividing counties. The court said slight population variances are "a minor harm" if they are "justified by legitimate state objectives."
Skinner said Tuesday's ruling disappoints him.
"One, that the Supreme Court failed to follow its own precedent -- they've effectively changed all of the redistricting law in the country with this decision," Skinner said. "And, it's a big blow to the Eastern Panhandle. The redistricting process really disenfranchised the Eastern Panhandle and diluted our votes and we're going to have to wait another nine years."
Right now, the panhandle is divided between the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts.
The redistricting plan at issue simply moved Mason County, in the western part of the state, from Capito's 2nd District into Rahall's 3rd District. McKinley's 1st District was left unchanged. The Supreme Court took a dig at an alternative plan advanced last year by Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley. The plan would have reunited the panhandle's voters into a single congressional district.
The plan, dubbed the "Perfect Plan" last year, had a one-person difference in population between the 3rd District and the other two.
The two judges in the majority on the three-judge panel seemed swayed by Unger's proposal. They were concerned about the shape of the 2nd, which critics say was gerrymandered when it was created in 1991, the year the state went from having four congressional districts to three because of population loss.
But the Supreme Court was unimpressed with the "perfect plan" "That appears, however, to have been the only perfect aspect of the Perfect Plan," the Supreme Court said, referring to the one-person population deviation. "State legislators expressed concern that the plan contravened the State's longstanding rule against splitting counties, placed two incumbents' residences in the same district, and moved one-third of the State's population from one district to another."
Unger said the Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday could make it easier for state legislators across the country to gerrymander districts. He argues lawmakers who aim for numerical equality are less likely to gerrymander districts.
"It opens up a Pandora's box, I think, in regards to redistricting," Unger said.
House Speaker Rick Thompson's attorney, Anthony Majestro, argues the opposite is true.
Majestro, who fought for Thompson to keep the maps as they were drawn by the Legislature, said exact numeric equality can give gerrymandering lawmakers license to "create all sorts of politically-motivated districts and hide behind numerical equality as an excuse."
"So, the Supreme Court's decision here recognizing traditional state considerations such as keeping districts whole, keeping intact county and city boundaries and avoiding conflicts between incumbents requires those who attempt to deviate from traditional redistricting principals to justify those deviations on the merits," Majestro said.
There appears to be one outstanding issue of state law before the case is totally finished. State law wants districts to be compact. That issue could be litigated further but Kessler said he did not think the issue would be a roadblock to continuing with the maps drawn in 2011.
(c)2012 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)