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Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the congressional district boundaries for this year’s elections in West Virginia, suggesting justices may re-examine the “one person, one vote” principle that has guided federal redistricting for 50 years.
The justices blocked a ruling from a three-judge panel that said differences in the populations of the districts drawn by West Virginia lawmakers were unconstitutional.
The move signals that the court may hear an appeal in the case, which would test past Supreme Court decisions aimed at ensuring that each vote has equal weight.
Under West Virginia’s plan, the largest district has 4,871 more people than the smallest. West Virginia officials, who created the districts under a bipartisan agreement after the decennial census, say the size differences are minuscule, given that each district has more than 600,000 people.
The state says it legitimately pursued other goals: keeping counties within the same district, protecting incumbents and winning bipartisan support.
“Redistricting by its nature involves tradeoffs,” West Virginia Democrats, led by West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, said in court papers. The lower court ruling “effectively precludes states from balancing these policy goals if they have a redistricting plan that has variance greater than zero.”
Districts Remain Intact
The high court’s action keeps West Virginia’s three congressional districts largely unchanged, including two that are held by Republicans.
The Supreme Court’s order applies until the justices decide whether to take up West Virginia’s appeal. A full high court review probably wouldn’t occur until the next term that starts in October. West Virginia’s primary is set for May 8.
The Supreme Court first said in the 1960s that state legislative districts must have about the same number of people to comply with the Constitution. The court applied a similar rule to congressional redistricting in 1964, saying districts within a state must achieve population equality “as nearly as is practicable.”
The high court invoked that decision in 1983 when it struck down a New Jersey congressional redistricting plan because the largest district was 0.70 percent larger than the average district.
In voiding the West Virginia map on a 2-1 vote, a panel of federal judges said the map’s variance of 0.79 percent could have been avoided using computer software.
The two county commissioners challenging the map say that lawmakers never explained why they needed to create districts with varied populations.
The state legislature “did not create a contemporaneous record in any form sufficient to show that the 4,871 person variance in this case, or any part thereof, was necessary to achieve some legitimate goal,” Jefferson County Commissioners Patricia Noland and Dale Manuel argued.
The case is Tennant v. Jefferson County Commission, 11A674.
--Editors: Justin Blum, Steven Komarow
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