CONCORD — Five plaintiffs who challenged the new House redistricting plan failed to convince the state Supreme Court the scheme violated the state constitution or that they had a better way to redraw the political boundaries for 400 House seats.
In its unanimous ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court let stand the plan crafted by the House Republican leadership, saying the challengers did not meet their burden to prove it violated the State Constitution.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to Superior Court for final dissolution, but attorneys for the plaintiffs say the challenge is over.
Manchester, Concord and three other plaintiffs argued the plan was unconstitutional because it failed to follow the 2006 state constitutional amendment requiring every community with sufficient population a House seat.
They argued the House proposal failed to deliver on that promise to 62 communities. It divides cities, towns and wards unnecessarily; creates districts that are not contiguous, and ignores communities of interest.
But the court noted it is up to the plaintiffs to prove the plan was created without a rational or legislative basis. Once enacted, the court said, a law is presumed to be constitutional unless proven otherwise.
Citing federal case law, the court noted any plan whose deviation from the ideal population for a House seat is below 10 percent is presumed to be constitutional.
“The legislature had a choice to make: adhere to the 10 percent rule and give fewer towns, wards, and places their own districts or exceed the 10 percent rule and give more towns, wards, and places their own districts. This is a policy decision reserved to the legislature,” all four justices wrote for the court.
House Speaker William O’Brien praised the court’s decision, saying it is disappointing taxpayer dollars were spent on the challenge.
“Today, the court realized the challenge that the House faced in developing a blueprint that synthesized both the federal ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle as well as the 2006 state constitutional amendment,” O’Brien said. “The strong opinion of the justices validates the extraordinary hard work of the House Redistricting Committee, House staff and our attorneys, all of whom did a tremendous job in coming up with a proposal that deftly navigated the obstacle course of the many constitutional provisions involved with this effort while trying to be as accommodating of local sensibilities as possible.”
But House Democratic leaders said they are disappointed in the decision, which they say ignores the intent of voters in approving the 2006 constitutional amendment.
“The voters were clear when they overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution in 2006: every town and ward that has the population to support one or more representatives must have those representatives,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “The fact remains that there are 62 towns and city wards that deserve their own representative that will not have that representation under the plan. Unfortunately the constitution requires the Supreme Court to give great deference to the legislature’s redistricting plan even when that plan disregards the will of the voters.”
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said he was saddened by the court’s ruling. Manchester challenged the plan because it combines two southern wards with Litchfield to create a district, which city leaders say could further reduce the city’s representation in the House.
“I’m saddened to think that the Supreme Court doesn’t understand New Hampshire is much different than any other state when applying federal guidelines percentages (for deviation). No other state has 400 representatives,” Gatsas said. “When the constitutional amendment passed in 2006, it made clear the appropriate number of representatives is very different and the court should not worry about federal guidelines. To use that as a litmus test is just wrong.”
In its ruling, the court addressed the issue of the seeming conflict between the federal constitution’s “one man, one vote” provision and the 2006 amendment.
The court notes the New Hampshire constitution contains a similar provision, and challengers to the redistricting plans come under the same equal protection provision.
“The established method to determine whether a redistricting plan affords citizens an equal right to vote is to calculate the extent to which it deviates from the ideal district population,” the court wrote, noting all sides agree the deviation standard in the House plan is 9.9 percent.
“We have not found any case in which a court has required a legislature to adopt a redistricting plan with an overall deviation range of more than 10 percent in order to enhance its compliance with a state constitutional mandate,” the court wrote.
The justices noted the plans proposed by the plaintiffs to make the redrawing more constitutional were well above the 10 percent deviation guideline in federal case law.
Martin Honigberg, attorney for Concord, and others called on lawmakers to consider establishing bipartisan redistricting commissions to redraw the political boundaries in the future.
The Senate redistricting plan was not challenged this year and was signed by Lynch.
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Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.