The U.S. Supreme Court upheld West Virginia’s congressional voting boundaries, saying the population among districts can vary to protect incumbents and keep counties and cities intact.
In an unsigned opinion with no dissents, the justices today upheld a bipartisan redistricting plan that kept the state’s three congressional districts largely unchanged. A lower court had said the map violated the “one person, one vote” rule. The high court today said that constitutional principle, which has guided federal redistricting for 50 years, wasn’t an absolute.
“Our cases leave little doubt that avoiding contests between incumbents and not splitting political subdivisions are valid, neutral state districting policies,” the Supreme Court said.
The justices also said states could seek to avoid shifting voters into new districts.
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, said the size differences are minuscule, given that each district has more than 600,000 people.
The Supreme Court first said in the 1960s that state legislative districts must have approximately 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 Supreme Court put that ruling on hold in January, keeping the districts intact for this year’s election.
The two county commissioners challenging the map said 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 in court papers.
The challengers also contend that the redistricting plan violates the West Virginia constitution. Today’s ruling didn’t address that claim.
The case is Tennant v. Jefferson County Commission, 11-1184.
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