CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Three months after it decided not to alter the Legislature's state House and Senate redistricting plans, the state Supreme Court on Monday explained why.
The court issued a 66-page opinion rebuffing five legal petitions that alleged state legislators did not follow the state constitution when they drew the new political lines last year.
The court was unswayed by the arguments. In November, with filing deadlines fast approaching, the court issued a short order that said it was going to uphold the state Legislature's legislative redistricting plan. It took until Monday to issue a full ruling on the case.
The justices voted 5-0 not to change the Senate boundaries. They voted 4-1 along party lines not to change the House boundaries, with Republican Justice Brent Benjamin the lone dissenter. The other four justices are Democrats. Benjamin's dissent was not yet available.
The U.S. Supreme Court - in a separate matter - is expected later this year to consider an appeal of a federal court ruling that struck down West Virginia's U.S. congressional redistricting plans.
In the five legislative redistricting cases, three lawsuits focused on the House of Delegates plan and two on the Senate plan. Each made slightly different arguments.
In Monday's ruling, written by Justice Thomas McHugh, the court said previous court rulings completely contradicted some claims made by the five petitions. The court also said some judgment calls that weren't clearly addressed in previous rulings were best made by legislators and not judges.
Of the many issues presented by the redistricting cases, the most eye-catching and publicly discussed was multi-member House of Delegates districts.
Reducing the number and size of multi-member districts was a top priority of the state Chamber of Commerce and a major issue for many Republicans. Some Kanawha Valley residents had sharply questioned a system that allowed the seven-member 30th House of Delegates district in Kanawha. Most of the representatives lived near each other, even though the district covered a large swath of the county.
McHugh dismissed a year's worth of political wrangling over multi-member districts, citing decades of practice and precedent going back to West Virginia's founding.
"There is no constitutional, statutory, or other authority prohibiting the utilization of such districts," McHugh said.
But McHugh also repeated the criticism of multi-member districts - yet said there was little the court should do about it.
"Potential advantages of single-member districting include maintaining communities of interest, respect for local county policies, and geographical compactness. Single-member districts have also been lauded as a method of reducing campaign costs, equalizing the voting process, and increasing accountability to constituents," McHugh said.
"Again, however, these are inherently political issues to be developed and debated in the legislative realm."
He added, "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. Simply put, our state constitution simply does not prohibit a plan containing multi-member delegate districts."