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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Manchester lawsuit charges House redistricting plan is unconstitutional

CONCORD – Lawyers for the city of Manchester asked a judge Monday to toss out the new state law redistricting the 400-person House of Representatives, charging it shortchanges the state’s largest community and violates the state and federal constitutions.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas had tried without success last month to convince the House of Representatives to sustain Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the redistricting plan backed by Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge will hear the emergency request of Manchester lawyers to enjoin Secretary of State William Gardner from going ahead for the June candidate filing period.

The nine-page suit says the redistricting plan falls short of guaranteeing equal protection for all citizens. It further alleges this new map fails to meet the letter of a 2006 amendment to the state Constitution meant to guarantee towns with population large enough should get their own representatives.

By the numbers, Manchester should get 33 or 34 House members and it gets only 31 in the final plan and has to share two of them with Litchfield, the lawsuit maintained.

Voters in Manchester Wards 8 and 9 and Litchfield would choose two House members and the communities next to one another couldn’t be more different, the lawsuit continued.

More than half of Manchester’s housing is rental while more than 90 percent of Litchfield’s housing stock is owner occupied.

The city has one half the per capita wealth and nearly five times the minority population as the town next door, the suit states.

“Demographically, Manchester and Litchfield are very different communities,” wrote lawyers for the city with the Manchester firm of McLane, Graf and Raulerson.

House Speaker O’Brien defended the House plan and predicted the court would uphold it.

“Unfortunately, the mayor of Manchester has decided to waste taxpayers’ resources by tying up the courts in a unrealistic quest to reverse the vote of over two-thirds of the citizens of New Hampshire adopting a redistricting amendment in 2006 that instructed the legislature to dedicate as many districts as possible to wards and towns and that gave no such direction when it came to cities,” O’Brien said in a statement.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, charged the lawsuit smacked of sour grapes.

“While I appreciate that the mayor of Manchester did not like the outcome of House redistricting, the reality remains, that his issues are political and not legal,” Bettencourt said. “His lawsuit appears to be more a political statement and not a basis for legal action.”

The number of House districts would nearly double to 200 from 103 currently.

At present, there are 17 districts where at least seven House members are chosen.

This plan would cut that number down to five with at least seven House members in a single district.

Local boards in Concord and Meredith have also authorized lawyers to look into suing the state over the plan.

They also cited the juxtaposition between the constitutional amendment to give towns their own representation and the fact 62 communities with enough population are instead grouped together.

House Legal Counsel Ed Mosca warned that US Supreme Court and state Supreme Court rulings put the “one man, one vote” federal principle ahead of the state constitutional change.

A decade ago, the state Supreme Court redrew maps for the House and Senate after Republican legislative leaders could not compromise with then-Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

O’Brien staged a surprise override vote in the House days after Lynch’s veto and before it could be printed for the public and legislators in House documents.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter.