BOBBY HARRISON: Don't necessarily bet the ranch on conventional redistricting wisdom

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

Conventional wisdom says that, as they did in 1991, the federal courts will order House and Senate members to run this year in their current districts.
Then, they will mandate that the newly elected 2012 Legislature draw new district lines and run again.
That is what happened 20 years ago when the plan approved by the Mississippi Legislature was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice on the grounds it did not provide adequate representation to the state’s African-American population.
This year, with the session quickly approaching its scheduled end, the House and Senate have not been able to agree on a redistricting plan. The disagreement essentially involves partisan politics.
Many believe Republicans benefit from running out the clock and thus throwing the issue into the federal courts, where what happened in 1991 will be repeated.
Only this time, Democrats, who struggle in Mississippi to raise funds to finance elections, will be at a distinct disadvantage by having to run two consecutive years. Plus, conservative Mississippi Democrats would be at a disadvantage by being on the ballot with President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings in the state are lower than in many other parts of the nation.
The combination of Obama and lack of cash would put pressure on legislative Democrats to compromise with Republicans to avoid running two consecutive years.
That is the conventional wisdom on the redistricting fight. And it may be right.
But anybody who wants a prediction with any certainty of how a three-judge federal panel would rule on the issue might as well seek out a palm reader. That’s because a palm reader has about as much chance of being right as any legal scholar, and probably would be cheaper.
It is true that in 1991 the judge ruled legislators would run under the current plan that year and under new districts in 1992. But the courts this time around could easily draw a new set of districts or even tell legislators to run under the House plan approved twice this session by a majority of that chamber and under the Senate plan that passed that chamber.
Both houses have passed plans for their chamber. The inability to get final approval on both a Senate and House plan is that the majority Republican leadership in the Senate will not approve the plan passed by the majority Democratic leadership in the House. The state Constitution requires the plans for both the House and Senate to be approved by both chambers.
This time, unlike 1991, a Department of Justice from a Democratic administration will be involved in the process. The Justice Department would most likely argue that the current districts are so grossly malapportioned that it would be violation of the U.S. Constitution’s one-person, one-vote mandate to have legislators run in those districts.
After all, based on the information gleaned by the U.S. census completed last year, House District 6, located in fast-growing DeSoto County is 89.9 percent above the ideal size and is probably still growing.
District 74, located in Rankin County, is 45.2 percent above the ideal size and District 115 on the Gulf Coast – ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – is 44.5 percent below the ideal size.
The courts generally require districts to be no more than 5 percent below or above the ideal size. Because of that population inequality, new districts could be approved by the federal courts for legislators to run in this year.
The Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and others already have filed a lawsuit asking the courts to approve new districts if the Legislature does not.
True, the new Legislature elected under a potential court plan could adopt its own redistricting proposal in 2012. But would a Legislature just elected under a plan want to change it?
The conventional wisdom might be that legislators would say they were elected under the court plan so just leave well enough alone unless the courts order them to run again.
Of course the conventional wisdom in this current redistricting quagmire is that there is no conventional wisdom.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.