BOBBY HARRISON: Legislative solutions for remapping would work best

JACKSON – Both lead legislators in the effort to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts say they want to accomplish the feat without judicial interference.
For them to accomplish their goal, they must get redistricting plans approved by a majority of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.
The state’s past redistricting history reveals that is often easier said than done.
After the 2000 census, the two chambers of the Legislature could not agree on a congressional redistricting plan. The process was especially difficult because Mississippi was losing one of its five congressional seats and that meant two incumbent U.S. House members would be thrown into the same district.
After a lengthy legal battle that played out in both the state and federal courts, a three-judge federal panel ended up drawing the congressional districts in February 2002.
The big mystery is how the three-judge panel was able to access the computer software needed to develop the intricate plan. The state had the specialized computer software, but many were surprised the judiciary had such expertise.
At any rate, that court-impose plan is still in effect in Mississippi and presumably will be changed by the Legislature before the 2012 elections.
The state is not expected to lose a congressional seat this time around so the process of redrawing the U.S. House seats is not expected to be as controversial or as difficult for the Legislature to accomplish.
While congressional redistricting is not expected to be controversial, there is a possibility that the chaos in drawing legislative districts that happened after the 1990 census could occur again.
After the 1990 census, the Legislature could not agree on how to redraw its own boundaries. The big issues in drawing the districts involved racial politics and speaker politics.
Sound familiar?
The end result after the 1990 census was the federal court forced the Legislature to run in 1991 under the old districts and again in 1992 under the new districts that were finally adopted by the Legislature.
Some speculate that the same could happen in 2011.
In the past, the House has approved its plan and it has been rubber-stamped by the Senate and vice versa. But there has been some indication that the Senate might not approve the House plan or the House might not approve the Senate plan this time around.
In other words, redistricting could get bogged down in the partisan bickering that has overtaken the Mississippi Capitol in recent years.
If that happens and the fight ends up in court, it is reasonable to assume a federal judge would tell legislators to run under the old districts in 2011 and try to pass a plan in time for special elections in 2012.
Elections Chair Terry Burton, Newton, and his counterpart, Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said they will do everything in their power to prevent that.
Reynolds points out that after the 2000 census the Legislature redrew its districts for the first time in the history of the state without court interference. He said there is no reason to believe the Legislature cannot do it again after this year’s census.
Of course, there could be another option if the Legislature cannot agree on how to redraw its districts.
The court could simply draw its own plan like it did with the congressional districts in 2002.
If that happens look for a fight over whether a state court draws the boundaries or whether a federal court does.
At any rate, the Legislature will not have much time to act if it wants to avoid having to run twice or having the courts draw a plan.
The state should get the redistricting data in early February.
Then the Legislature must get a plan approved in the House and Senate and OK’d by the U.S. Department of Justice – all before a June qualifying deadline.
The process already has started.
Reynolds and Burton, and other legislators on a Joint Redistricting Committee, will hold a series of hearings across the state in the coming weeks to garner public input.
But the real work will not start until February when the state gets that redistricting data.
The question, then, is will the Legislature be able to quickly take care of its business or will the issue end up in court with the possibility of legislative elections in 2011 and 2012.

Contact Bobby Harrison, the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or call (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal