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Friday, May 4, 2012

House redistricting lawsuits appear on fast track to Supreme Court

MANCHESTER – Five lawsuits attempting to throw out the redistricting of the 400-member House of Representatives drawn up by Republican leadership appear on a glide path to the state’s highest court after an initial hearing Thursday.

Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown made it clear that he’s prepared to sign an interlocutory transfer to the supreme court if all the parties can agree to a statement of facts on the case.

This legal move would avert the need for a hearing at the lower court and ship it up right away to the Supreme Court for written and perhaps oral arguments.

The suits principally contend that the House-adopted plan shortchanged cities and towns entitled to their own elected legislators, in violation of an amendment to the Constitution voters overwhelmingly approved in 2006.

The suing parties include the cities of Concord and Manchester, the town of Gilford, the New Hampshire Democratic Party, and a group of 10 past and present Republican House members.

Brown scheduled a hearing next Wednesday, presumably to adopt the factual statement that would follow by an order shipping the lawsuits to the state’s five most powerful judges.

“This is a trolley stop on the way to the Supreme Court; there is no other way to describe it,” Brown told the bevy of lawyers on both sides of this hotly debated suit.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, initially was the lone holdout against sidestepping a trial on the merits in Superior Court.

Judge Brown instructed O’Brien’s private lawyer, David Vicinanzo, to call the speaker and try to get him on board.

“Are you going to get on to the train or not?” Brown asked. “I would encourage you to suggest to your client this is the way to go and you save your powder for the Supreme Court.”

After a recess, Vicinanzo returned and said O’Brien would agree if the record is closed on this case and not open to competing plans being offered to the one the Legislature approved over the veto of Gov. John Lynch.

Martin Honigberg, the private lawyer representing Concord, said there would be additional filings, as many parties are just getting their arms around the lawsuit.

“Everybody is just getting into this case; everyone is going to submit additional documents to make their arguments,” Honigberg said.

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said state prosecutors also “have concerns” with alternative plans being offered.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, the lead plaintiff in his city’s suit, said he agreed with moving the matter quickly to the Supreme Court.

Judge Brown said that while lawyers on both sides strongly disagree on the desired outcome, there should be an agreement on the facts.

“I can’t envision there are going to be hotly contested issues of fact,” Brown said. “We have the districts, we have the maps, we have the constitutional issues in play.”

Lynch vetoed the bill in part because Hudson, Pelham and 60 other towns with enough population to have their own legislators didn’t get them.

In 2006, voters amended the state Constitution so that this representation principle would guide redistricting plans.

The new plan will elect 11 House members from Pelham and Hudson, even though the population would give Hudson seven of its own and Pelham would get four seats.

House Legal Counsel Ed Mosca and O’Brien maintained that the federal “one person, one vote” principle trumped state law and the New Hampshire constitutional change.

They defend that the final plan nearly doubled the number of districts and dramatically cut the number of lawmakers who had to run in massive districts that elected up to 13 legislators apiece.

Ironically, O’Brien as a private lawyer filed a lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of Litchfield and other towns trying to force an early redistricting to immediately give communities their own seats in light of the New Hampshire constitutional change.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit without considering how the constitutional amendment would figure into future redistricting plans.

Judge Brown said moving these suits right away to the Supreme Court ensures justice will be speedy, and that’s important, given that the candidate filing period for the 2012 election begins June 6.

“The citizens of New Hampshire are entitled to a quick solution, and we are prepared to put this on an expedited basis to deal with those circumstances,” Brown said.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.