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Redistricting: Federal panel steps in

By Staff
From staff and wire reports
Jan. 16, 2002
A decision by a federal court to take over Mississippi's congressional redistricting process was heralded by Republicans today as a "hopeful" sign that a more regional plan will eventually be adopted.
U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., who would likely face U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss. in a redrawn district in this year's congressional elections, said through a spokesman the federal court's decision "is a hopeful sign that we'll get a plan that makes sense."
Republicans and Democrats had been at odds over redistricting since the Legislature was unable to agree on a new plan. Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Patricia Wise approved a plan based largely on Democratic Party interests and Republicans, led by Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, filed a federal lawsuit over the issue.
The map approved by Wise was taken Dec. 26 to the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees Mississippi election changes to ensure fairness to minorities. Officials say gaining Justice approval could take two months.
A plan approved by federal judges would not need Justice approval. Any plan approved by state authorities legislators or a judge needs the OK from the federal department.
Even as they take over Mississippi's redistricting process, three federal judges are urging state lawmakers to jump back in and resolve the issue.
Although it may be difficult for the Legislature to adopt a plan at this late date, nothing in this order should be construed as in any way discouraging action by the Mississippi Legislature, to which the United States Constitution and the laws of Mississippi direct the primary responsibility for congressional redistricting,'' the judges wrote in documents filed Tuesday.
U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge E. Grady Jolly of Jackson and U.S. District Judges David Bramlette of Natchez and Henry T. Wingate of Jackson are meeting with lawyers today to set a hearing schedule.
The judges say they're stepping in on redistricting because they think a map approved by a Hinds County chancery judge might not win U.S. Justice Department approval before a March 1 candidates' filing deadline.
Republicans applauded the decision of the three federal judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents.
I am pleased that the rule of law is being upheld and that the proper court, the United States District Court, has taken jurisdiction over this matter,'' said Grant Fox of Tupelo, an attorney representing GOP activists in redistricting lawsuits.
The Republicans' lawsuit asked federal judges to draw a new, four-district congressional map. State lawmakers, in a November special session, disagreed on how to combine areas now represented by Mississippi's two junior congressmen, Pickering Shows.
Mississippi is losing one of its five U.S. House seats because of slow population growth in the 1990s.
Rob McDuff of Jackson, an attorney representing Democrats in redistricting, said the federal judges' decision to step in muddies the waters.'' The three judges said in December that they might take over redistricting by early January.
The federal court seems to be looking for a reason to draw the redistricting plan itself,'' McDuff said. We don't think it should. We still believe that the state court plan will be precleared in time for the election. If that happens, we believe the state court plan will be the one that is actually used.''
Republicans unhappy with Wise's ruling have until late January to appeal to the state Supreme Court. The three federal judges, in their Tuesday order, said the possibility of appeal raises doubts about whether the Justice Department can start considering the plan Wise approved.
The federal judges also raised concerns about a judge who represents only part of the state making a decision that affects all of Mississippi.
A bill filed this legislative session would bump the congressional candidates' filing deadline from March to June and the party primaries from June to August.
House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, said this week that leaders haven't ruled out considering that change, but many lawmakers want to see what action the federal judges will take.
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, chairman of the redistricting committee, said if the chancery judge's plan be cleared by the Justice Department, intervention by the three federal judges would be moot.
Reynolds said he agreed legislative action is preferable to that by the federal court.
The House certainly thinks that,'' he said.
Reynolds said he would not speculate on what lawmakers would do if the federal court draws a plan.