The Supreme Court decided on January 20th to stay the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the matter of West Virginia’s new congressional districts, meaning that upcoming congressional elections will be conducted in the new districts created by West Virginia’s legislature following the 2010 Census.
While a stay means that the issue will be revisited at a later time, there is a significant chance that the Supreme Court’s ruling will mean an end to questions over the new congressional districts’ legality. In a statement, West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler noted that the entire Supreme Court considered the request for a stay, a move that “tells me [him] there’s a significant likelihood that the permanent relief that would be requested would be granted.” Indeed, the Supreme Court Justice in charge of the circuit in question often handles the process of evaluating a stay request, in this case the Fourth Circuit, overseen by Chief Justice John Roberts. The few circumstances where the entire court considers a stay decision come about in cases where the Supreme Court wants to avoid the process of bringing a case to trial or in cases with time pressure, in this case, the 2012 congressional elections.
Following the Census, West Virginia neither lost nor gained seats in the House of Representatives. The need for redistricting stemmed from population shifts within the state itself. The only recommendation provided by the state’s redistricting commission was to move Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd District. In late August of 2011, a bipartisan majority in the West Virginia legislature nearly unanimously approved this recommendation.
The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of four separate county commissions and attorney Thornton Cooper, claimed that the new 2nd District violates federal requirements for equal population and the state’s constitutional mandate for compact districts. Following a decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court to uphold the new districting plan, the coalition appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on November 30.
The Fourth Circuit’s three-judge panel ruled that the new congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional by a vote of 2-1 on January 3, citing the unequal population distribution between the three congressional districts. In their decision, the judges cited Karcher v. Daggett, a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that districts be as equal in population as possible unless state officials provide adequate public policy reasons for a deviation.
The Supreme Court’s stay of the decision of the Court of Appeals means that the 2012 congressional elections in Virginia will operate under the new redistricting plan. An appeal of the stay decision is expected to be filed in February.