MARTINSBURG - In a decision released Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court's ruling that threw out West Virginia's congressional redistricting plan following the 2010 Census.
The Supreme Court found the state's redistricting plan, Senate Bill 1008, did not violate the U.S. Constitution's principle of one man, one vote.
However, the Supreme Court's order sent the case back to the three-judge panel to decide if the redistricting plan violated West Virginia's constitution.
Adopted by the state Legislature last year, the redistricting plan was challenged by the Jefferson County Commission and Commissioners Patricia "Patsy" Noland and Dale Manuel. The commission argued that the redrawn 2nd District was unconstitutional because of the population discrepancy among the state's three districts.
A special three-judge panel found the state's redistricting plan violated the principle of one man, one vote, sending it back to the state Legislature. Judge John P. Bailey dissented from the majority decision, written by Judges Robert B. King and Irene Berger. That ruling was put on hold pending appeal.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Martinsburg attorney David Hammer, who with Stephen Skinner of Shepherdstown represented the county and the commissioners, said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court's ruling.
"The Supreme Court overruled our primary claim, finding that the redistricting did not violate the principle of one man, one vote," Hammer said.
The variance in populations between the state's three congressional districts under the redrawn districts was 0.79 percent, which the Supreme Court said was not large enough to dilute the vote of residents from one district to another.
The ruling said the variation was acceptable if it was necessary to maintain several longstanding principles followed by the state Legislature in redrawing district lines, such as not crossing county lines, not pitting two incumbents against each other in an election and not moving a large portion of the state's population into a new district.
The complete ruling can be found at: www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/092512zr5bc9.pdf
While there were seven alternative plans proposed, none accomplished the Legislature's goals, such as not dividing counties, putting incumbents in the same district and maintaining existing districts as much as possible, as well as SB 1008, according to the Supreme Court's order.
"... given the small 'size of the deviations,' as balanced against 'the importance of the State's interests, the consistency with which the plan as a whole reflects those interests,' and the lack of available 'alternatives that might substantially vindicate those interests yet approximate population equality more closely,' S.B. 1008 is justified by the State's legitimate objectives," the Supreme Court concluded.
Dubbed the Mason County flip, the final redistricting plan adopted by the Legislature moved Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd District.
Skinner was absolutely surprised by the ruling and found it curious.
"(The Supreme Court) set a new standard just for this case," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
The Supreme Court's order sent the case back to the special panel to determine if the redistricting plan violated the West Virginia constitution's call for compact districts.
"Compactness really is at the core of the complaint," Skinner said. "The 2nd district is not compact. It is the opposite of compact."
The 2nd Congressional District is a narrow band of counties running from the crest of Blue Ridge Mountain in Jefferson County to the Ohio River and includes Kanawha County, the state's most populous county and home to the state capital in Charleston.
"We don't belong in the same district as Charleston," Skinner said. "It's a real blow to the Eastern Panhandle. There will come a time when we have enough seats in the Legislature to do something about this."
Manuel pointed out that appointees to several state boards, commissions and authorities are based on congressional districts and because the Eastern Panhandle is in the same district as Kanawha County, the appointees are from Kanawha County, shortchanging the Eastern Panhandle.
"It takes down our clout," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We have to compete with Kanawha County and they have the larger numbers, so they get the appointments. It makes it more difficult for us to prevail. We can't move programs for the Eastern Panhandle."
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office released the following statment regarding the Supreme Court's ruling:
"This decision validates the congressional districts being used in this current election and therefore changes none of the election preparation work of the Secretary of State's Office. The 2012 Congressional Election has proceeded under this plan and will continue to do so. This decision has put to rest any questions regarding the Legislature's congressional redistricting plan and brought clarity to the Congressional District map."