Legal merits of the Congressional plans

After much work, legislative leadership from the House and Senate is in the final stages of negotiating a compromise on a plan for the state's seven Congressional districts. The map, which is shown to the right, was recently released to the public via the state's legislative website.
This plan (which in the interests of full disclosure, I was asked to help draw) addresses a number of concerns expressed by various parties. The most notable revisions were in the Charleston metropolitan area, exchanging several communities in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester Counties between the First and Sixth Congressional Districts and attempting to make the map more like past Congressional maps which the court had signed off in in the Burton decision of 1992 and the Colleton decision of 2002.

Considering the issues raised in past decisions over South Carolina redistricting is of paramount importance as many observers expect the maps to end up in court, even if a Congressional map does clear the ongoing legislative impasse and is signed off on by Governor Haley. Any map signed off on by the courts would need to navigate a complex set of legal expectations and precedents.

Several issues which were problems in the plans which were passed by the House and/or Senate or raised by the advocates and critics of various plans were examined in the most recent ruling regarding South Carolina's election districts: Colleton County Council vs. McConnell, which resulted in the drawing of the current Congressional and legislative district lines in 2002. As these plans will likely be in front of a court soon, it seems logical to speculate that issues which mattered to judges before will matter to judges in the near future as well.

A number of analyses of the plans have often sought to argue the merits based upon partisan election outcomes, many of which show minor advantages in the House plan. In reviewing past rulings, overtly partisan interests are generally given little or no interest by courts. Since jugdes won't likely consider them, they won't be addressed here.


In the Colleton decision, judges considered the preservation of metro areas to be a tradition with legal merit:

Metropolitan areas that overflow county boundaries, such as Charleston/Berkeley/Dorchester, Greenville/Spartanburg, and Richland/Lexington, previously have been recognized as sharing a special community of interest. See Riley, 533 F.Supp. at 1181. (p. 23)

This was a key handicap cited with the version of the maps passed by the Senate. While this goal was not completely met in the compromise plan, as Voting Rights Act issues required splits of small shares of land area and population in the Charleston and Columbia metro areas and the excess population of Greenville and Spartanburg Counties required some of their outlying areas to be shaved off into the 3rd and 5th districts, this plan kept the cores of these three metro areas intact.

SC Congressional Districts in 1990,
just before the Pee District was
taken away in 1992.
Another precedent was cited by the court in the Colleton ruling was keeping districts from changing too much:

Generally speaking, traditional redistricting principles in South Carolina have directed courts to maintain, where possible, recognized communities of interest and the cores of existing districts, as well as political and geographical boundaries delineated within the state. See South Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP v. Riley, 533 F.Supp. 1178, 1180 (D.S.C.), aff'd, 459 U.S. 1025, 103 S.Ct. 433, 74 L.Ed.2d 594 (1982). (p. 23)

In the original House version, shifting the route taken by the 6th District into North Charleston from the Cooper River entry point that had been favored for the last twenty years to an entry point that came from the south, crossing the Ashley River created a problem. The compromise plan essentially restored the judicially-accepted alignment.
1930s - after SC lost it's 7th District
Radical changes in the Senate's version are scaled back considerably in the compromise map, which largely conforms to many established redistricting alignments. The biggest change from the past plans was the placement of the new Seventh District in the Pee Dee region, but this "change" is simply a restoration of the Pee Dee district which had existed going back well into the 1800s and one which facilitates the restortation of the historic alignments of two other districts: the 1st from Charleston to Beaufort, the 2nd in the Midlands.

Three other districts retain their historic geographic bases: the 3rd in the upstate Savannah River region, 4th in the Greenville-Spartanburg area and the 5th in the Upstate region north of Columbia and east of the Broad River while the Sixth continues to serve as the state's judicially-mandated majority-minority Congressional District.


Before the transformation of the Sixth District into a district intended to comply with the Voting Rights Act's expecation of minority voter empowerment, only one county was split: Berkeley, which was split between the First and Sixth Districts by the court-imposed maps from the 1981 federal court ruling. Since then, splitting county lines has become far more commonplace - without objections from the courts.

The practiee of avoiding splitting county lines means accepting greater population variances between districts (the compromise plan's districts vary by no more than three residents) and in some cases, creating districts which diminished communities of interest. For example: Beaufort, Berkeley, Dorchester, Lancaster, Lexington and York Counties are examples of counties with two sets of communities: those which are largely urban or suburban in nature which and those which are rural in nature, with very different socio-economic identities, as well as political, cultural and economic, often giving them more in common with adjacent cities and counties than neighboring areas in the same county. The Colleton ruling recognized that the interest of preserving county lines was subordinate to other factors:

Like all traditional districting principles adhered to by the state legislature, the principle of preserving county lines occupies a subordinate role to the federal directives embodied in the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act when the court is called upon to implement remedial redistricting plans. We do not find that the preservation of county lines continues to enjoy a preeminent role in the court's redistricting task. (p. 24)

All three plans split county lines: the House plan, the Senate plan and the compromise plan. Some cut more, some cut less. Given the relative acceptability of splitting county lines and past court opininons on the subject, those who argued county lines matter might have a difficult time making that point in court.

This is by no means intended to say there won't be other issues. Depending on the circumstances of the likely lawsuit, there will likely be other issues that judges are asked to consider, but these issues have been recurring ones in the past. As courts often work from past precedents, they'll likely consider these as starting points in redistricting litigation, thus they should be considered as legislators work towards enacting a final Congressional redistricting plan.

1 Response to "Legal merits of the Congressional plans"

  1. Anonymous 28/7/11 00:08

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

To post a comment without having a Blogger account, select "Name/URL", put your name in, but leave the URL line blank. Email me if you'd like to comment, but need help making it work.