Panel schedules hearing for W.Va. redistricting maps

Charleston Daily Mail (WV) - Thursday, December 8, 2011

West Virginia's redistricting plans face a final legal hurdle, with a panel of federal judges set to hear arguments Dec. 27 against the new map for the state's three congressional districts. 

The Legislature moved just one county, Mason, from the 2nd District to the 3rd in response to the 2010 Census. The U.S. District Court challenge argues that the redrawing dilutes the votes of the 2nd District's residents by having its population exceed either of the other two districts by at least 4,700 people. 

The petition also invokes language in the West Virginia Constitution that calls for compact congressional districts. The 2nd District, created when the state lost a U.S. House of Representatives seat following the 1990 Census, stretches across the state from the Ohio River to the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Jefferson County's commission and two of its members filed the federal challenge last month. Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper later joined the case, while also unsuccessfully contesting the redrawing of legislative districts. The state Supreme Court rejected his petitions and others targeting the new Senate and House of Delegate districts on Nov. 23. 

As West Virginia's elections chief, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is a defendant in the federal case along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature's top leaders. Lawyers for those leaders, House Speaker Richard Thompson and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, asked the judges in a Dec. 1 filing to dismiss the petition. They also seek a speedy resolution of the case, citing the upcoming 2012 elections. All three U.S. House seats are on the ballot next year. 

While the Jefferson County plaintiffs and Cooper each allege constitutional flaws with the redrawn maps, they differ over possible solutions. Cooper argues against any plan that divides Kanawha County. 

Thompson and Kessler have also asked the panel to hold the Dec. 27 hearing in Charleston. The judges have also mentioned Elkins as a possible venue. 

Judge Robert King of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is on the panel along with Chief Judge John Preston Bailey of West Virginia's northern federal court district and Judge Irene Berger of the southern district.