Panel hears congressional redistricting arguments

CHARLESTON -- Three federal judges soon will decide whether lawmakers were right to make changes to West Virginia's congressional districts. The panel presided over a six-hour hearing Wednesday. The three judges are Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert King and U.S. District Court Judges John Bailey and Irene Berger. Last month, the Jefferson County Commission, president Patsy Noland and vice president Dale Manuel sued the State over the new congressional redistricting plan. Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper later joined the case that objects to the redrawing of the 2nd Congressional district that includes both Kanawha and Jefferson counties. The current plan shifts Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd District. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, state Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson all were named in the lawsuit, originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. The venue has since been changed to the Southern District in Charleston. The Jefferson commission argues the defendants have a duty under state law to ensure that the laws and constitution of the state are "faithfully executed." That includes, it says, the right to the election of representatives to U.S. Congress from districts that "shall be formed of contiguous counties, and be compact and ... contain as nearly as may be, an equal number of population." The commission says the trouble began during this year's first special session. The state Legislature was tasked with reapportioning congressional districts for the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives based on 2010 U.S. Census figures -- the districts are redrawn every 10 years following the Census. After creating a task force to develop a new congressional plan, senators eventually originated Senate Bill 1008, which provided for three congressional districts of equal proportion. Under the legislation, each had a population of about 617,665. According to the most recent Census, West Virginia has a total population of 1,852,994. In August, the Legislature convened in another special session to adopt its plans for redistricting. Four different amendments to SB 1008 were proposed and debated. Ultimately, the state Senate voted to pass the measure. However, the amended version of the bill moved Mason County from the current Second Congressional District into the current Third District. The Second District, which includes Jefferson County, is now the most populous of the state's three congressional districts with nearly 5,000 more people than the other two districts. It is represented by Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican. The Jefferson commission contends the districts, as currently drawn, are unconstitutional. In particular, it argues that in placing Jefferson County in such an overpopulated district the Legislature has "deprived" the county's citizens and others in the Second District, and has "diluted" their vote. "As enacted, the current statute results in an unconstitutionally high variance between the highest and lowest populated congressional districts," the commission wrote in its complaint. But time is running out for the federal court to make a decision, if any. Tennant, in an answer filed earlier this month, said the candidate filing period begins Jan. 9.

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