Jefferson Co. commission suing over U.S. congressional districts

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Nov 8, 2011


MARTINSBURG -- The Jefferson County Commission and two of its members filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday, suing the state of West Virginia over the current makeup of its three congressional districts.

The commission, president Patsy Noland and vice president Dale Manuel filed their eight-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. The commission voted unanimously last week to file the lawsuit.

The named defendants are Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson.

The Jefferson commission argues in its filing that 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 trouble began, the county says, 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 a bill, Senate Bill 1008, that 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 argues that 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.

The county is requesting a three-judge panel enter a declaratory judgment that the existing districts violate their rights under state and federal law, and should be declared null and void.

It is also asking the court to enjoin the defendants from using the current district makeup in any future primary or general election.

The commission and its members are being represented by Stephen G. Skinner of the Skinner Law Firm in Charles Town and David M. Hammer of the Martinsburg law firm of Hammer, Ferretti and Schiavoni.

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