Tuesday, September 25, 2012
In a per curium reversal of a three judge court, the United States Supreme Court today issued its brief opinion in Tennant v. Jefferson County Commission.
The issue was not whether West Virginia itself was unconstitutional - - - as some have entertained - - - but whether the latest redistricting plan of its state legislature was constitutional. The constitutional argument centered on the “one person, one vote” principle the Court has held to be "embodied" in Article I, §2, of the United States Constitution.
Reversing, the Court held that the three judge court misapplied the standard of Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U. S. 725 (1983), requiring first, that the parties challenging the plan bear the burden of proving the existence of population differences that “could practicably be avoided," and then if so, the burden shifts to the State to “show with some specificity” that the population differences “were necessary to achieve some legitimate state objective.”
There was no dispute that the new plan had a population variance of 0.79%, the second highest variance of the plans the legislature considered. Instead, there was disagreement over whether this was necessary to achieve some legitimate state objective. The state had several other objectives, including not splitting county lines, redistricting incumbents into the same district, or requiring dramatic shifts in the population of the current districts.
As to county lines, the Court noted:
With respect to the objective of not splitting counties, the [Three Judge] District Court acknowledged that West Virginia had never in its history divided a county between two or more congressional districts. The court speculated, however, that the practice of other States dividing counties between districts “may portend the eventual deletion” of respecting such boundaries as a potentially legitimate justification for population variances.
[emphasis in original]. As those who have ever resided in West Virginia know, counties are quite important as demographic markers in the state. The Court thus seems to nod to the state's individual circumstances, as well as also acknowledging its relatively small population.
[image: West Virginia counties map via]