W.Va. SC: Role of court in redistricting limited to plans' validity

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Feb 14, 2012



CHARLESTON - The state Supreme Court of Appeals has released a full opinion on its November decision to not change recently redrawn House of Delegates and state Senate districts.

The state's high court filed its 66-page opinion Monday.

Justice Thomas McHugh authored the ruling. Justice Brent Benjamin concurred in part and dissented in part, and is expected to file a separate opinion.

"The only role of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in determining whether a state legislative redistricting plan is constitutional is to assess the validity of the particular plan adopted by the Legislature under both federal and state constitutional principles, rather than to ascertain whether a better plan could have been designed and adopted," McHugh wrote.

On Nov. 23, the Court voted 5-0 not to change the state Senate districts. The justices voted 4-1 not to change the House districts. Benjamin dissented on the House ruling.

Five separate lawsuits alleged the Legislature was trying to gerrymander districts when lawmakers drew new district lines, which is done every 10 years following U.S. Census figures.

Two of the lawsuits were directed at the Senate plan, while the other three took aim at House plan.

Monongalia and Wood county residents Eldon A. Callen, Jim Boyce, Petra and John Wood, and Frank Deem filed a lawsuit challenging the Senate plan. Callen serves on the Monongalia County Commission. Deem is a former state senator.

Monroe County Commissioners Michael Shane Ashley, Clyde Gum Jr. and William Miller, 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 lawsuits challenging the House plan.

South Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper filed petitions to both House and Senate plans.

All argued that the plans are unconstitutional, and wanted the state Supreme Court to stop Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office from implementing them.

Tennant was the primary respondent in the five cases. House Speaker Rick Thompson also was a respondent in the three House cases.

In its opinion Monday, the Court said it was the duty of the state Legislature -- not itself -- to consider facts, establish policy and "embody that policy" in legislation.

"The role of this Court is limited to a determination of whether the Legislature's actions have violated the West Virginia Constitution," McHugh wrote.

In responding to the plaintiffs' arguments, the Court said it would "not endeavor" to apply a standard more strict than the 10 percent deviation standard, as imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court also noted that the idea of single-member districts has its advantages -- maintaining communities of interest, respect for local county policies, geographical compactness and equalizing the voting process.

But it would not take a stance either way.

"Again, however, these are inherently political issues to be developed and debated in the legislative realm," McHugh wrote.

Multi-member districts and the splitting of county boundaries in the redistricting process are not per se unconstitutional, the Court pointed out.

"While single-member districts and adherence to county lines may arguably be preferable from a policy standpoint, this Court will not engage in revision of a legislative decision on redistricting unless constitutional infirmity exists," McHugh wrote.

"Simply put, our state constitution simply does not prohibit a plan containing multi-member delegate districts."

As for claims of gerrymandering, the Court said it would "not intrude upon the province of the legislative policy determinations" to overturn the Legislature's redistricting plans based on such an assertion.

"Gerrymandering, in and of itself, is not unconstitutional and has clearly been deemed acceptable in legislative redistricting decisions," McHugh wrote.

"Lacking any authoritative standard by which to definitively judge such matters and absent compelling evidence that any unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering occurred in this matter, no relief is warranted, and Petitioners' claims of gerrymandering must consequently fail."

The Court said it was unwilling to disavow the "strong policy of deference to state legislatures in devising redistricting plans."

"Redistricting and reapportioning legislative bodies (are) a legislative task which ... courts should make every effort not to preempt," McHugh wrote.

"State policies and state preferences are for a state's elected representatives to decide, and courts should not intercede unless there is a direct constitutional violation."

The Court deemed both plans constitutional.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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