Federal panel hears redistricting options

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A three-judge federal panel appointed to resolve Mississippi’s legislative redistricting dispute listened to opinions for two hours.
It was the first hearing of the specially appointed panel and about 10 parties were represented. Numerous legislators, lobbyists and others crammed into the federal courtroom Friday to hear the case.
Court of Appeals Judge E. Grady Jolly, who presided over the hearing, gave no indication of when the panel would rule or the next step in the process.
The judges heard a myriad of suggestions on how to deal with the lawsuit filed by the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and others after the state Legislature adjourned the 2011 session without reaching agreement on a redistricting plan.
The issue broke down in the Legislature over partisan bickering.
The Senate broke with traditional practice by refusing to rubber-stamp the plan passed by the Democrat-controlled House to remap that chamber.
The Republican-controlled Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, insisted that the two chambers hold negotiations, especially on the House plan.
The House leadership refused, resulting in Friday’s court hearing.
The other two judges on the panel, Tom Lee and Louis Guirola Jr., both of the Southern District of Mississippi, listened intently, but never spoke.
In general, most of the attorneys representing the Democratic side agreed with the NAACP that the court should approve the plans passed by each chamber to redraw its districts.
Jackson attorney Rob McDuff, representing the House Apportionment and Elections Committee, told the judges that by adopting those plans they would be “in keeping with the tradition.”
But Jackson attorney Mike Wallace, representing the state Republican Party, said that while it might be tradition for each chamber to rubber-stamp the plan from the other house, the state Constitution mandates that each chamber passes both plans for them to become law.
“The law is not a Republican plot,” Wallace said. “It is the law of Mississippi and it is very simple for this court to follow it.”
Wallace argued that the court should employ a consultant to work with the warring parties to develop a plan.
But Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood said the consultant would cost the cash-strapped state money. Plus, Hood said, time is running out to develop a plan. The qualifying deadline is June 1 and the primary is scheduled for August.
Most parties agreed that there is no need to have legislative elections two years in a row, which happened in the early 1990s when legislative redistricting ended up in court.
Most argued that any plan imposed by the court could stand until the next round of regularly scheduled elections in 2015.
McDuff even argued that there is ample judicial precedent for legislators to run this year under the existing districts, even though the 2010 census revealed they were unconstitutionally malapportioned, and then run in 2015 under new districts.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has argued that legislators should run this year under the existing districts and then in 2012 under new districts.
But Jackson attorney Robert Gibbs, who represents Hosemann, told the judges he agreed with McDuff that legislators could run this year under existing districts and in 2015 under new districts.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.