CONCORD — New Hampshire’s highest court will step in and make the “least change” necessary to balance the state’s two congressional districts if the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu fail to reach an agreement on redistricting, the justices unanimously ruled Thursday.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument of lawyers representing Attorney General John Formella and legislative leaders that the state court had no business interfering in the process of drawing maps to elect federal officials.
“We reject the state’s position that, despite the unconstitutionality of the current congressional districting statute, judicial non-intervention in this case is more important than protecting the voters’ fundamental rights under the United States Constitution,” the justices wrote.
The five justices decided the existing congressional districts were unbalanced because the 1st District had nearly 18,000 more residents than the 2nd District.
“Thus, we hold that the existing congressional districting statute, RSA 662:1, violates Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution,” the court said.
The decision was a victory for the activists who had brought this lawsuit, including former House Speaker and Portsmouth Democrat Terie Norelli and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which later joined in support of the case.
The court stressed it is its job to draw a congressional map only if the Legislature and Sununu can’t reach agreement before June 1, the opening of the filing period for 2022 candidates.
“We reiterate that the Legislature is not precluded from enacting a legally valid congressional district plan at any time prior to the close of this case,” the justices said.
The judges said that if called upon, they will make only the fewest changes needed to equalize the two districts because it is the Legislature that has the broadest authority concerning redistricting.
Suit brought after rift with Sununu
The lawsuit was brought after Sununu vowed to veto a congressional redistricting plan that had garnered the support of the GOP-led House and Senate.
The plan (HB 52) would have moved more than 70 towns and city wards from one district to another.
Sununu said the proposal would make both congressional districts non-competitive by making the 1st District Republican-leaning and the 2nd District solidly Democratic.
In response, the House last week approved a second redistricting plan (SB 200) even more dramatically different than the first one.
That plan would move more than 500,000 residents from one district to the other by changing the 1st District to hug the Interstate 93 corridor.
Sununu has said he is opposed to this plan as well.
“Separately from the court, we remain deeply concerned about the gerrymandered congressional map making its way through the Legislature and to Governor Sununu,” said Henry Klementowicz, senior staff attorney with the ACLU-NH.
“Keeping populations equal is only one part of the puzzle. Lawmakers must also work to ensure that no map favors one party more than the other.“
The Senate on Thursday declined to support the new House-passed plan and asked to form a committee of legislative negotiators to work out a compromise.