Mason, Putnam counties file redistricting suit

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Oct 24, 2011

Tennant CHARLESTON -- Mason and Putnam counties, in a lawsuit filed in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last week, say the state Legislature failed to consider "the community interests of the people" in approving a House of Delegates redistricting plan.


CHARLESTON -- Mason and Putnam counties, in a lawsuit filed in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last week, say the state Legislature failed to consider "the community interests of the people" in approving a House of Delegates redistricting plan.

Putnam County Commissioners Stephen Andes and Joseph Haynes, Putnam County Clerk Brian Wood, Mason County Commissioners Bob Baird, Myles Epung and Rick Handley, and Mason County Clerk Diana Cromley filed their petition for writ of prohibition Friday.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is the named respondent.

The counties argue that the state's high court should strike down the plan, calling it unconstitutional. They say the Court's intervention is needed to prevent Tennant's office from moving forward in implementing the law.

"Otherwise, the people of Putnam and Mason counties, and many others similarly situated across the state of West Virginia will be forced to endure 10 years of inadequate, unequal representation in the West Virginia House of Delegates," they wrote in their 31-page petition.

House Bill 201, the plan redrawing House districts, simply doesn't make sense, they say.

The bill, which the counties allege contains "substantial, clear-cut, legal errors," was signed into law on Sept. 2.

"Although Mason County has sufficient population for its own delegate and Putnam County has the population to support three delegates, both counties are divided and forced to share representation in the State House of Delegates," the counties wrote.

The state's first redistricting plan passed the Legislature Aug. 5, but flaws were found in the bill so Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was forced to veto it on Aug. 17. He then called for a second redistricting special session.

The second plan passed the House 56-30 on Aug. 20 and passed the Senate the next day. The plan calls for a total of 67 delegate districts.

Opponents of the law, including the two counties, say the configuration violates the "one person, one vote" concept.

But this isn't the first time the counties, particularly Mason, have faced redistricting woes.

For about 20 years, Mason County has been divided in half to create portions of two delegate districts, even though it has had the population to support a delegate of its own.

Its residents have been outnumbered by Putnam County residents in the past two reapportionment plans and because of it, Mason cannot elect its own delegate.

Now, under HB 201, Putnam is placed in a similar situation.

The county is to be divided among five districts. Only one of these districts consists solely of Putnam residents. And of the remaining four, Putnam residents will be outnumbered by other county residents in all but one.

That means Putnam County could end up with only one delegate for the next 10 years.

Moreover, the counties note in their petition, the one district Putnam currently has all to itself contains two incumbent delegates. Coincidentally, these two delegates are Republicans.

"Looking at the newly designed, odd-shaped delegate districts across West Virginia, it is difficult to ascertain the rationale behind it -- other than political gerrymandering," both counties wrote.

"Although political considerations may naturally be made by politicians, this factor cannot outweigh the Constitutional protection for counties and their citizens."

The state Supreme Court, the counties argue, should afford some means of protection for citizens, such as themselves, "discriminated against by their own government" because of their affiliation with a minority party.

"Our republican form of government is endangered where the majority political party in power abuses it and intentionally harms the minority by depriving people of a voice in exercising our most precious right," they wrote.

Simply put, the counties contend the Legislature didn't give much consideration to county boundaries or residents when it reapportioned the delegate districts.

"It appears that the House of Delegates drew its districts to protect majority political party incumbents and to harm minority political party incumbents," they wrote. "It appears that political affiliation of the members of the House of Delegates, along with the political leanings of the voters of the state of West Virginia, was the paramount consideration in determining the new delegate district boundaries; whereas, the boundaries of political subdivisions were given little to no consideration."

Winfield attorney Jennifer Scragg Karr is representing the two counties.

Their filing comes days after South Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper filed his own 40-page mandamus petition with the Court.

He also says the redistricting plan violates the state constitution.

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