Big Island to retain fourth Senate seat
Hawaii Reapportionment Commission’s justification in redrawing legislative districts so Hawaii Island received a fourth Senate seat embodied “rational, legitimate and substantial state policies,” a federal court panel said Thursday in dismissing a lawsuit challenging the new maps’ constitutionality.
The lawsuit, filed by an Oahu group that includes three veterans and state Rep. K. Mark Takai, contends the state Reapportionment Commission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it removed 108,767 nonresident military, military dependents and students from population counts that determined district lines.
Honolulu attorney Robert Thomas, representing the group, said in an email Thursday he is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The resulting maps took one state Senate seat from Oahu and gave one to Hawaii Island.
“While we have not finished reviewing the Hawaii District Court’s rationale in detail, everything we’ve read so far leads us to believe that the Supreme Court will be interested in reviewing this decision, and in resolving the issues in our favor,” Thomas said.
In addition, the lawsuit said, the districts don’t have approximately the same number of people each. The Supreme Court has presumed a plan is unconstitutional if districts are 10 percent larger or smaller than the ideal population, which is derived by dividing the total population by the number of districts. Hawaii’s new Senate districts have a 44.2 percent deviation and House districts have a 21.6 percent deviation.
“We recognize that the maximum deviations here are significant. We do not suggest that any other state could justify deviations of this magnitude — in fact it is possible that no other state could do so,” the three-judge U.S. District Court panel said in its 88-page ruling.
“Hawaii’s geography, history, culture and political structure set it apart. Given Hawaii’s unique circumstances, the deviations here are justified,” said the ruling, signed by U.S. Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown and District Judges Michael Seabright and Leslie Kobayashi. “The commission has met its burden to demonstrate the 2012 reapportionment plan’s constitutionality.”
Hawaii Attorney General David Louie said the ruling validated the work of the Reapportionment Commission.
“The Court decision also affirmed that although there were some numerical inequalities, the process of maintaining basic island units to avoid “canoe” districts for purposes of districting, as specified in Hawaii’s State Constitution, is allowable,” Louie said in a statement. “The court recognized the significant public policies which underlie the Reapportionment Plan and are embodied in the Hawaii State Constitution. These policies were also supported by a recent decision of the Hawaii Supreme Court.”
The Reapportionment Commission had first tried to draw maps with the nonresident service members, dependents and students included. The Hawaii Supreme Court made the commission redraw the maps after a successful lawsuit by state Sen. Malama Solomon, former Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Pavao and party committee members Louis Hao and Patti Cook. In addition, Kona attorney Michael Matsukawa filed his own lawsuit on behalf of the public.
The federal ruling Thursday takes into account Solomon’s experience representing a canoe district of parts of the Big Island and parts of Maui. The judges agreed that canoe districts were unsatisfactory to both elected officials and the public.
“Unlike the counties of any other state, Hawaii’s basic island units are separated by 30 to 70 miles of open ocean,” the ruling said. “Creating districts of equal population would require canoe districts spanning the ocean and comprised of different basic island units.”
Solomon was pleased with the newest ruling.
“That’s why we have the census and the numbers,” Solomon said Thursday. “I am very happy the Big Island gets to keep its fourth Senate seat.”