Federal judges block West Virginia redistricting

CHARLESTON, W.V. Tue Jan 3, 2012 3:43pm EST

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CHARLESTON, W.V. (Reuters) - A panel of three federal judges ruled on Tuesday that West Virginia's congressional redistricting plan is unconstitutional and ordered the state's legislature to submit a new plan.

In a two-to-one decision, the panel said the plan, which left the state's three congressional districts virtually unchanged, does not provide equal representation in each district.

The court said the Democratic-led legislature, in drawing up the plan, focused too much on maintaining the status quo instead of making each district as equal in population as possible.

It gave the legislature until January 17 to submit an interim plan or the panel said it would choose its own plan.

The Jefferson County, West Virginia Commission filed suit last year against the redistricting plan, citing population differences among the districts and an ongoing breakup of state's Eastern Panhandle, which gained population according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The three-judge panel gave the legislature two weeks to come up with an alternative.

""We hope that the Legislature avoids the 20-year-old gerrymander if it chooses a new plan by January 17," said Stephen Skinner, attorney for the commission.

The current configuration has been around since 1991, when West Virginia went to three districts from four districts.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader John Unger, who represents several Eastern Panhandle counties, said he expects the legislature to act quickly.

"Now the Legislature is charged with going back and doing it right. I'm cautiously optimistic that we will," he said.

Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and the governor's office.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)

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