JACKSON — The Mississippi Republican Party is asking federal judges to redraw the state’s four U.S. House districts before the 2012 elections.
In court papers filed this month, the party said there’s “no likelihood” that legislators will handle congressional redistricting on time.
The next regular legislative session begins Jan. 3. That’s 10 days before the congressional candidates’ qualifying deadline for the March 13 primaries.
The U.S. Justice Department must approve Mississippi’s new congressional maps to ensure they don’t dilute black voting strength, and the review process generally takes at least 60 days.
“There’s no time for (legislators) to take it up during the qualifying time, so we thought it was in the best interest of candidates for Congress to have adequate time to know what their districts are going to be,” Republican Party chairman Arnie Hederman said in an interview yesterday.
Democrat Tommy Reynolds of Charleston, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said he believes it is possible to handle congressional redistricting in a special session this fall.
“For the life of me, I can’t see why there couldn’t be an agreement worked out,” Reynolds told The Associated Press.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said late last month that he’d prefer that legislators redraw the congressional districts, instead of judges. But he said he would not call a special session unless there’s an agreement in hand.
“There’s no use in bringing the Legislature in here to sit around and spend money when there’s no agreement,” Barbour said Aug. 29.
A special session would have to take place before mid-November to give the Justice Department time to review any new maps, said Senate Elections Committee Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton.
The four congressional districts need to be balanced by population, using 2010 Census numbers.
In the court papers filed Sept. 12, the Republican Party asks federal judges to reopen a congressional redistricting case from a decade ago. Mississippi went from five U.S. House districts to four after the 2000 Census, and legislators didn’t agree on a plan. A panel of three judges approved the map that has been used since 2002.
Legislators spent weeks during the 2011 session arguing about how to redraw the 122 districts in the state House and 52 districts in the state Senate, without agreeing on a plan. They put considerably less time into discussing congressional redistricting.
With Mississippi’s population of 2.9 million, each district should have 741,824 people.
According to the GOP’s court filing, the 2010 Census numbers showed north Mississippi’s 1st District had 788,095 people, which is 6.2 percent above the ideal; the Delta’s 2nd District had 668,263, which is 9.9 percent below the ideal; central Mississippi’s 3rd District had 756,924, which is 2 percent above the idea; and south Mississippi’s 4th District had 754,015, which is 1.6 percent above the ideal.
Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black, and the 2nd District is Mississippi’s only majority-black district. It has been represented since 1993 by Bennie Thompson, the only Democrat currently in the state’s congressional delegation.
Reynolds and Burton said they sent a letter to Mississippi’s four congressmen about six weeks ago, asking for their ideas about redistricting. Reynolds said he hasn’t heard back from any of them. Burton said he has spoken with staff members for Republican Rep. Gregg Harper, who was elected to the 3rd District seat in 2008.
Burton said that as a practical matter, it’s important for Thompson and Harper to agree on the boundaries of their adjoining districts.
“Anything Bennie Thompson doesn’t allow or won’t agree to probably can’t pass the House, and anything that Gregg Harper doesn’t allow or won’t agree to probably can’t pass the Senate,” Burton said.
The state House is controlled by Democrats, and the Senate is controlled by Republicans.
Thompson told AP on Monday that legislators have the responsibility to redraw congressional districts, and he wants them to do it rather than handing the job to federal judges. He said legislators haven’t given a clear timetable for drawing new districts. He said they should hold public hearings.
“I just don’t think four members of Congress are any more important than the other citizens of our state,” Thompson said. “So, if a public process is being put forth, then let’s go with it.”
Harper said he trusts the courts to work out districts that would be fair for citizens and the four members of Congress.
“Since early this year, I have remained in contact with state Sen. Terry Burton regarding our discussions with our state’s other three members of Congress and our inability to reach a solution on redistricting,” Harper said in a written statement to AP. “The Mississippi Republican Party has taken this action in court to be sure that redistricting is accomplished before the qualifying deadline in January. I believe that this is the only viable option available to them to assure that the congressional lines are drawn in a timely fashion for next year’s primary election.”