U.S. Sup. Ct.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a district court judgment. The court held that a state’s legitimate objectives in congressional redistricting without splitting counties, redistricting incumbents into the same district, or requiring dramatic population shifts justified a slightly higher population variance than would have existed under other redistricting plans that the state considered.

In 2011, after considered many different proposals, the West Virginia legislature adopted, as a congressional redistricting plan, S.B. 1008. S.B. 1008 avoided several problems that plagued alternate plans. It did not split counties, redistrict incumbents into the same district, or require dramatic shifts in the population of the current districts. It nonetheless had a population variance of 0.79%, meaning that the population difference between the largest and smallest districts in the state equaled 0.79% of the population of the average district. This 0.79% variance was the second highest variance of the plans considered by legislature.

The Jefferson County Commission and two of its county commissioners sued to enjoin the state from implementing S. B. 1008. The district court granted the injunction, holding that the state’s asserted objectives did not justify the 0.79% population variance.

With respect to the objective of not splitting counties, the district court found that other states’ practices of dividing counties between districts might “portend the eventual deletion” of respecting such boundaries as a potentially legitimate justification for population variances.

The court further questioned the state’s assertion that S. B. 1008 best preserved the core of existing districts. The court found that although acclimating to a new congressional district might “give rise to a modicum of anxiety and inconvenience,” avoiding such constituent discomfort was not among the legitimate state policies recognized in Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U. S. 725 (1983).

Finally, the court found that although 0.79% was a minor variation when Karcher was decided, the feasibility of achieving smaller variances due to improved technology meant that the same variance now had to be considered major.

Chief Judge Bailey dissented, finding, among other things, that the record demonstrated the legitimacy of the state’s concerns.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that West Virginia carried its burden of demonstrating that the population deviations in its plan were necessary to achieve legitimate state objectives.

First, the court found, the district court erred in concluding that improved technology had converted a “minor” variation in Karcher into a “major” variation today. Nothing about technological advances in redistricting and mapping software had, for example, decreased population variations between a state’s counties. Thus, if a state wished to maintain whole counties, it would inevitably have population variations between districts. Despite technological advances, a variance of 0.79% resulted in no more (or less) vote dilution today than in 1983, when the Karcher court held that such a minor harm could be justified by legitimate state objectives.

Further, the court found, the case law left little doubt that avoiding contests between incumbents and not splitting political subdivisions were valid, neutral state districting policies.

Turning to the district court’s conclusion that limiting the shift of population between old and new districts did not qualify as “preserving the cores of prior districts” under Karcher, the court pointed out that Karcher’s list of possible justifications for population variations was not exclusive. The desire to minimize population shifts between districts was clearly a valid, neutral state policy. S. B. 1008 achieved significantly lower population shifts than the alternative plans—more than four times lower than the closest alternative, and more than 25 times lower than others.

The court noted that none of the alternative plans came close to vindicating all three of the state’s legitimate objectives while achieving a lower variance. On this record, the court concluded, given the small size of the variance, as balanced against the importance of the state’s interests, the consistency with which the plan as a whole reflected those interests, and the lack of available alternatives that might substantially vindicate those interests while reducing the variance, S. B. 1008 was justified by the state’s legitimate objectives.