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Single-member districts: amendment needed

By Staff | Dec 16, 2011

When the legislature convenes in January for the 2012 regular session I will introduce a proposed constitutional amendment requiring single-member districts for the House of Delegates in the 2021 redistricting and in every redistricting thereafter.

A few weeks ago the West Virginia Supreme Court dismissed all of the lawsuits (there were several) that had been filed against the House of Delegates and Senate redistricting done by the Legislature a few months ago.

I was not surprised that our state’s high court made that ruling. Furthermore, I think the ruling was correct on all counts.

One of the lawsuits contended that the federal and state constitutions require single-member districts for legislative bodies. The argument goes that both constitutions require “one-person – one vote,” and that single-member districts are the best manifestation of that concept. Ergo, goes the argument, the two founding documents require single-member districts.

I very strongly believe that an entirely single-member district system constitutes the best manifestation of the one person – one vote concept. But I see nothing in either the U.S. Constitution, the West Virginia Constitution or any court decision that mandates single-member districts.

I think our state’s constitution should so mandate. That’s why I’m going to introduce this proposed constitutional amendment. The lawsuit that asked the state Supreme Court to order single-member districts fell into an intellectual trap that often snares politicians like me, as well as citizen activists. That trap is the belief that an idea or action by the legislative or executive branch of government should be declared unconstitutional because it is bad policy.

Nonsense. Something can be really awful public policy and still be permitted by the constitution.

In 1989 Tom Steptoe, one of our Jefferson County circuit judges for many years and my colleague in the House of Delegates from 1982-1984, once addressed a group assembled to discuss the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

“The constitution does not guarantee us a wise government,” he told the gathering, “merely a free one.”

It is our responsibility as citizens to work for wisdom in government. The judicial branch is charged with determining whether a given act by one of the other two branches is permitted by the constitution, not whether it is a good decision.

I vigorously oppose taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and giving it to a so-called “independent commission.” Several states have done that with the idea of “taking politics out of redistricting.”

I have friends in the legislatures of some of those states and they all tell me that the independent commissions are farces. The commissions do not remove the politics. They merely hide the politics. Redistricting is an inherently political undertaking and it is impossible to remove politics from it. I think it best to make sure the public can see the politics, rather than obfuscate.

One lawsuit remains over West Virginia redistricting. That would be the one filed by local attorney Stephen Skinner arguing that the legislature should have chosen a plan with less difference in population between congressional districts than the one finally selected. This does have merit, in my view.

Full disclosure: I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been helping to make laws for over 20 years now. So I have some idea of what’s constitutional and what isn’t.

Federal courts have been quite clear that congressional districts should be as close as possible to each other in population each time they are redrawn.

The strongest argument the attorneys defending the legislature’s decision can make is that the plan chosen does not split any counties, and the plan with the closest population differences between congressional districts does split one county.