By Steven Allen Adams
CHARLESTON, W.V. (Reuters) - A panel of three federal judges ruled on Tuesday that West Virginia's congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional and ordered the state's legislature to submit a new plan.
The panel said in a two-to-one decision that the plan drawn up by the state's Democratic-led legislature, which left West Virginia's three congressional districts virtually unchanged, did not provide equal representation in each district.
The redistricting, in which the boundaries of election districts are redrawn to reflect population changes in a process that can sometimes evoke partisan squabbles, will affect the state's three House of Representative races this year.
In West Virginia, the court said the legislature had focused too much on maintaining the status quo rather than making each district as equal in population as possible. It gave the legislature until January 17 to submit an interim plan or said the panel would choose its own plan.
The process of redrawing congressional boundaries can be contentious, as it has been recently in Ohio and Texas, because reconfigured congressional boundaries have the potential to reshape the political balance of power.
The Jefferson County, West Virginia Commission filed suit against the plan last year, citing population differences among districts and an ongoing breakup of state's Eastern Panhandle, which added population according to the 2010 Census.
"We hope that the legislature avoids the 20-year-old gerrymander if it chooses a new plan by January 17," said Stephen Skinner, attorney for the commission. The current configuration was put in place in 2001, when West Virginia went to three districts from four.
Democratic State Senate Majority Leader John Unger, who represents several Eastern Panhandle counties and whose party holds majorities in both legislative chambers, said he expected the legislature to act quickly.
"Now the legislature is charged with going back and doing it right. I'm cautiously optimistic that we will," he said.
A spokesman for U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican representing West Virginia's Second District, criticized the ruling.
"She's obviously extremely disappointed and frustrated the courts would overturn the will of the legislature and the action of the governor," campaign spokesman Kent Gates said.
"I think it's another example of a purely political judicial system in West Virginia that hurts the state."
In Ohio, lawmakers last month settled a fight over a congressional redistricting map, eliminating the possibility of a referendum vote over the issue this year.
Ohio state lawmakers approved a new map after Democrats complained an earlier map gave an advantage to Republicans. The new map has 12 Republican-leaning districts and four Democratic-leaning districts -- just as the earlier map did.
Texas has also seen legal challenges to the state's redistricting maps, with groups representing minority voters suing to block new districts they say illegally dilute the voting strength of the state's growing Latino population.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hold a hearing in January on whether a panel of three federal judges overstepped its authority by imposing congressional and legislative maps over ones designed by the state legislature.
A federal appeals court will also consider whether the Republican redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Justice Department believes that it does.
Texas is one of a handful of states required to clear election changes with the Department of Justice, due to a pattern of minority vote suppression in the 1950s and 1960s.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)