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Local reaction to ruling positive

By Staff | Jan 6, 2012

MARTINSBURG – Jefferson County Commission President Patricia “Patsy” Noland was a little surprised, but very happy with the ruling by a three-judge panel that threw out West Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan.

“I’m very excited – it’s a big win for the Eastern Panhandle,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The Legislature has always had the final say, but they were wrong.”

She, fellow Jefferson County Commissioner Dale Manuel and the Jefferson County Commission challenged in federal court the congressional redistricting plan based on 2010 Census figures that was adopted by the state Legislature during a special session in August.

The judges concluded in a 2-1 decision that the plan violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause because the state’s three congressional districts aren’t as equal in population as they should or could have been.

“I hope we’ll have congressional lines so that someone from the eastern part of the state will represent the eastern part of the state,” Noland continued. “We have differences with the western part of the state, and it does a disservice to the east.”

Manuel was not available for comment Tuesday.

Charles Town attorney Stephen G. Skinner represented the County Commission, Noland and Manuel before the three-judge panel.

“This is a moment for the people of the Eastern Panhandle to savor,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The federal court stood up for us, for our rights.”

He said that the state Legislature has a short window to fix the plan or the court will substitute one of the other plans that were offered. According to the order nullifying the redistricting plan, legislators must submit a new plan by Jan. 17 to the panel for review, he said.

Two other plans are mentioned in the ruling that could be used.

Legislators could adopt the so-called “perfect plan,” a plan introduced by state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, that supposedly has zero variance in populations between the three congressional districts.

Charleston lawyer Thornton Cooper, who intervened in the suit, also offered a redistricting plan that was mentioned as a possible solution in the panel’s ruling.

Unger, the West Virginia Senate majority leader and chair of a special, bipartisan redistricting committee, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that his plan would divide the state into an eastern district, a northwestern district and a southern district.

“This is not about Democrats versus Republicans,” he said. “It’s not about our congressional members. It’s about the districts.”

Unger was the only member of the state Senate to vote against the redistricting plan, he said.

“I truly believed the bill was not constitutional,” Unger explained. “It did not uphold the idea of one person, one vote in the U.S. Constitution, and it did not uphold the compactness issue in the West Virginia Constitution.”

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, who also submitted an alternative redistricting plan, called the plan that was adopted an abomination that dated from 1991.

Following the 1990 Census, West Virginia lost one of its four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives through reapportionment because the state lost population. That is when the current three-district configuration was devised.

“I want to push to make the Eastern Panhandle whole, keeping Tucker, Grant and Mineral counties in the same district,” Snyder said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Now, those counties are part of the 1st District, while the rest of the Panhandle is part of the 2nd District, which runs from the crest of Blue Ridge Mountain to the Ohio River.

State Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, who co-chaired the special redistricting committee, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he could support the Unger plan, despite Barnes sponsoring the plan that was adopted by the Legislature.

Dubbed the Mason County Flip, the approved plan moved Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd District, which came very close to equalizing the populations of the three districts.

The 2nd District’s population increased tremendously because of the phenomenal growth of the Eastern Panhandle, while the population of the 3rd District, in the southern part of the state, decreased as dramatically during the first decade of the new century.

“Traveling the state, I found no dissatisfaction with the people’s representation in the three districts,” he said.

Barnes traveled around the state last year as a candidate in the special gubernatorial election.

“I figured if it wasn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Barnes continued. “But I concede there were plans presented that were more in line with the constitutional requirements.”

Barnes said he “can be very supportive of a plan” that kept the Eastern Panhandle together and that included his home county of Randolph in an eastern district.

He expects spirited discussions when the Legislature convenes Jan. 11 for its regular session.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who represents the 2nd District, was not as happy with the decision as others.

“Congresswoman Capito is extremely frustrated with the ruling of the court and a judicial system that puts politics above the people,” Kent Gates, Capito’s campaign spokesman, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Congresswoman Capito will give good representation to the people of the 2nd District regardless, but the court has put a new obstacle in her path.”