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Supreme Court blocks West Virginia redistricting ruling

West Virginia can run this year's congressional races with the redistricting map recently struck down by a panel of federal judges, after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to stay the ruling.
The justices agreed to block the Jan. 3 decision pending an appeal by state officials, who had cited West Virginia's looming election timetable in petitioning for a stay. 

Two of those officials, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler, also said they will challenge the decision's finding that the Legislature-approved redistricting map is unconstitutional, and its mandate for a new plan. 

Kessler, D-Marshall, expects the U.S. Supreme Court appeal to be filed in about a month. He noted that while officials had petitioned Chief Justice John Roberts for the stay, the entire court considered the request. 

"That tells me there's a significant likelihood that the permanent relief that would be requested would be granted," said Kessler, a lawyer. 

With West Virginia's three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among those offices on the ballot this year, candidate filings for all the 2012 races began last week. The filing period ends Jan. 28. The primary is May 8. In between those dates election officials also face a series of other deadlines, including several addressing the printing and distribution of ballots. A federal law that aims to assist military and overseas voters sets some of these time limits. 

By 2-1, the U.S. District Court panel concluded that state officials failed to justify why the redrawn 2nd Congressional District contained several thousand more people than the other two. 

That majority, 4th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert King and U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, later relented on a Jan. 17 deadline for officials to submit a new plan. But they continued to bar the targeted map from this year's elections. 

In the wake of the 2010 Census results, the Legislature had merely moved one county -- Mason -- from the 2nd District to the 3rd District. The Jefferson County Commission challenged that redrawing, and was joined by Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper. 

Lawyers for the commission were reviewing Friday's order, and Cooper did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The plaintiffs argue that this redistricting failed to provide equal representation as called for by both the West Virginia and U.S. constitutions. They invoked a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires districts as exactly equal as possible unless state officials have explained valid public policy reasons. 

The state Senate and House of Delegates passed this plan during an August special session by nearly unanimous and bipartisan margins. Lawyers for state officials defending the plan have cited that outcome, and how the new maps for the legislative districts spurred far more conflict among lawmakers. 

The plaintiffs also allege that the 2nd District, which stretches across West Virginia from the Ohio River to the Blue Ridge Mountains, violates the state constitution's mandate for compact districts. They argue that this unfair outcome stems from the redistricting that followed the 1990 Census, when the state lost a U.S. House seat. The Jan. 3 decision stopped short of ruling on that issue. 

The Jefferson County Commission opposed the stay, and its lawyers instead advocated for an alternative redistricting proposal introduced Monday in the state Senate. The Legislature's 60-day regular session started last week. At least three other redistricting bills were also introduced this week.