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Senators consider independent redistricting panel

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After recent legislative and congressional redistricting provoked weeks of contentious debate, and six separate legal challenges -- including one still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court -- some legislators believe an independent commission could do a better job of redrawing those districts.

"I think we ought to take a real hard look at it," Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said Tuesday of the resolution to study whether to create an independent commission on redistricting (SCR69).

Unger's resolution calls for the Joint Committee on Government and Finance -- the top-ranking interim committee, made up of House and Senate leaders -- to study the possibility of creating an independent commission to take over responsibility for redistricting.

The resolution, which would need to be adopted by the House and Senate before the regular session ends at midnight Saturday, notes that "redistricting is an inherently political process."

"The welfare of the citizens of the state and their local communities of interest must be placed ahead of any political party or individual," the resolution states. "An independent commission is a more equitable body to invest the responsibility of redistricting."

Unger's motion points out that several states have already switched to independent commissions "in an effort to have an open, democratic and transparent process, encourage participation and avoid partisan gerrymandering."

The resolution -- co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha -- was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said it warrants serious consideration.

"This was my first time with redistricting," Palumbo said of last year's special sessions to redraw legislative boundaries. "What you realize very quickly is it's a process driven by self-interest."

"I think we should look at how other states do it," he said of the proposal.

Several states have independent commissions that redraw legislative and congressional districts. Some have commissions for legislative redistricting only.

A few states have commissions that serve in advisory capacities, while in some states, independent commissions take over redistricting if the legislatures fail to enact plans by specified deadlines.

"My concern is, if we're going to have a commission, I want to make sure it's truly independent and not being beholden to those who appoint it," Unger said.

Redistricting -- which is required every 10 years to make districts conform with population changes reported by the U.S. Census -- was particularly contentious in 2011.

It prompted five lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of House and Senate redistricting plans. Those suits were dismissed by the state Supreme Court in November.

However, in a sixth lawsuit, a panel of federal district judges overturned the state's congressional redistricting plan in January as being unconstitutional.

Shortly after, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of that order, pending arguments before the high court.

Unger said Tuesday that if the study of an independent redistricting commission moves forward, legislation could be enacted in time for such a commission to redraw Congressional districts for the 2014 elections, if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the district court ruling.

The resolution calls for the Joint Committee to report its findings and recommendations, along with any draft legislation, to the full Legislature during the 2013 regular session.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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