The U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether Hawaii Island gets to keep its fourth state Senate seat, after opponents of how the state redrew its legislative boundaries filed an appeal Friday with the nation’s highest court.
The move follows a ruling last month by a three-judge federal panel, which found that the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission’s justification in removing 108,767 nonresident military, military dependents and students from population counts that determined district lines embodied “rational, legitimate and substantial state policies.”
The lawsuit was filed by an Oahu group that includes three veterans and state Rep. K. Mark Takai, who contends the state Reapportionment Commission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The resulting maps took one state Senate seat from Oahu and gave one to Hawaii Island.
Unlike other cases where the Supreme Court chooses whether to “accept cert,” or hear a case, in reapportionment cases the court must read and consider the petition, said Honolulu attorney Robert Thomas, who represents the plaintiffs. The court can then ask for more written pleadings or it could schedule an oral argument or rule based on the original pleadings alone, he said.
“I do think this is going to be an interesting issue to the court,” Thomas said Wednesday. “We’ve had 50 years of history of just about every time a reapportionment plan gets drawn, someone is going to challenge it.”
Thomas said he thinks the Supreme Court will also be interested in why Hawaii doesn’t count military and their dependents when other states do.
Anne Lopez, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General, said her office has received the appeal notification and attorneys are reviewing it. They should decide next week how to proceed, she said.
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 had 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.”
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.