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Judges Order Maine to Redraw Congressional Districts
06/09/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

A panel of federal judges has ruled that Maine's Congressional districts are not equally apportioned as they stand. And as such, the judges say, the two districts are unconstitutional and must be redrawn before the 2012 election.

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A panel of federal judges has ruled that Maine's Congressional districts are not equally apportioned as they stand. And as such, the judges say, the two districts are unconstitutional and must be redrawn before the 2012 election.

The districts were scheduled to be adjusted as needed in 2013 using the latest decennial census numbers. But when 2010 census numbers released in March showed that the 1st District has nearly 8,700 more residents than the 2nd District, two Mainers brought a federal lawsuit against the state requesting that redistricting take place before the next congressional election.

Otherwise, said the plaintiffs, William Desena and Sandra Dunham, both of Cape Elizabeth, their votes would not count as much as they should under the U.S. Constitution.

It's an unusual case because the defendants--Gov. Paul LePage, Secretary of State Charles Summers and the leaders of the Republican-majority Legislature--agreed with the plaintiffs.

"It is a good decision because it will result in every person's vote being equal to every other person's vote," says Deputy Attorney General Paul Stern.

Those familiar with redistricting in the state say it can takes months to form the bipartisan commission that comes up with a redistricting plan, not just for congressional districts but for legislative districts, which then has to be approved by two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature. If it doesn't pass there, the Maine Supreme Court acts as a final arbiter.

But Stern says timetables will have to be moved up. "As of Jan. 1, 2012, petitions can be circulated for the congressional elections, therefore before Jan. 1, 2012 the districts must be withdrawn."

The three-judge panel chaired by First Circuit Judge Bruce Selya took the unusual step of announcing its resolve just 15 minutes after oral arguments ended--and weeks in advance of when an opinion is expected to be filed.

Selya said the panel wanted to give the state as much time as possible to respond to its decision. He noted that the Legislature is expected to finish its session for the year in the coming weeks.

The Maine Democratic Party, which joined the lawsuit as an intervenor, worries that the Republicans in control of the Legislature will find a way to redraw districts to their advantage.

"Our concerns were raised when the lawsuit was first brought," says Janet Mills, Maine's former attorney general who represents the Democrats for the law firm of Preti Flaherty. "Like why now? Why this year, why not 20 years ago? You know, all of a sudden, it's an issue and so we felt we needed to be at the table."

Mills says she hopes the traditional bipartisan approach to redistricting and the required two-thirds majority vote is kept intact during an accelerated timeline. She says that Democrats have reason to be nervous, given a Republican proposal a decade ago that she says was designed to place the two Democrats serving in Congress at the time into the same district.

"The Republican party proposed that the state of Maine be divided, not horizontally more or less, but vertically, and they proposed with a straight face that Millinocket and East Millinocket and Portland be in the same congressional district," Mills says. "Let me think, who was in Congress at the time? Tom Allen from Portland, Mike Michaud from East Millinocket."

The plan ended up going nowhere, but Mills is concerned things would be different today. Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, says that Democratic fears are misplaced.

"The Republicans control the House and Senate and the governor, so obviously we have a little more say here, but I don't think you'll see anything except to try to make districts equal," Webster says. "I'm not sure there is going to be a partisan gerrymandering kind of thing."

Scott Fish, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, says that leadership will make a plan about redistricting but have had their hands full trying to finalize a budget and recess by next Wednesday. "And once leadership has the court order, they will follow the court's guidance," Fish says. "It's just kind of a peripheral issue at this point with all of the other stuff that's going on down there."

The plaintiffs from Cape Elizabeth were not present in federal court today. Although Mills described them as Republican activists, Republican Party Chair Webster says he did not know who they were prior to the lawsuit.

And their attorney, Tim Woodcock of Eaton Peabody in Bangor, says he does not know the party affiliation of either client. Woodcock said the issue isn't about political parties, but about the fairness of the electoral system.

"That system has existed since 1981, and no one has challenged it," Woodcock says. "But I think it's always been vulnerable to challenge. And so Mr. Desena and Ms. Dunham--when they found their votes would be diluted, they found that to be intolerable and sought to vindicate their rights."

Maine and Montana are the only states to delay redistricting until after the 2012 elections  - a point noted by the panel of judges which also includes U.S. District Court Judges Brock Hornby and George Singal. But Montana only has to redistrict local legisaltive districts because it has just one congressional district.

The different parties in the lawsuit have until June 20 to weigh in on ways to approach redistricting on the shorter timetable. The judges left open the possibility that they could end up doing the redistricting, but made it clear that they'd prefer the state to settle the issue.


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