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Maine's congressional districts must be redrawn

Clarke Canfield

A three-judge panel on Thursday ordered the state to redraw its congressional district boundaries before next year's election instead of waiting until the 2014 elections.

Maine is the only state that allows its congressional districts to be realigned after the 2012 elections, but a lawsuit filed in March contended state officials couldn't wait that long.

The complaint argued that boundaries should be redrawn for next year's elections because the districts, based on 2010 census figures, aren't as equal in population as required by the Constitution; there are 8,669 more people in the 1st Congressional District than in the 2nd Congressional District. The Maine attorney general's office agreed the boundaries are unconstitutional, but the Maine Democratic Party intervened arguing otherwise.

In an unusual move following a hearing Thursday, federal Judges Bruce Selya, D. Brock Hornby and George Singal announced on the spot that they agree the districts are unconstitutional and that the state needs to redraw district lines now. They announced their decision without delay because of the nearness of next year's elections.

"We're extremely aware of the need to give the state of Maine sufficient time to handle its own business," Selya said.

Maine law requires that the state's congressional districts _ as well as its legislative districts _ be reapportioned in 2013.

But the lawsuit filed by two Cape Elizabeth residents, William Desena and Sandra Dunham, argued that the congressional district boundaries should be redrawn before next year's elections because of the population shift since 2000. According to the census, 668,515 people live in the southern 1st District and 659,856 people live in the 2nd District.

At Thursday's hearing, Bangor attorney Timothy Woodcock, who represented the plaintiffs, and Deputy Attorney General Paul Stern agreed that the district lines are unconstitutional.

But Janet Mills, a former Democratic legislator and Maine attorney general, argued that there's no need and not enough time to redraw the district lines ahead of the 2012 elections.

Singal asked her why Maine was different than all the other states that are redrawing their congressional lines before, not after, the 2012 elections. Maine is the only state to allow congressional redistricting after 2012, according to lawyers at Thursday's hearing.

"They don't do it in the methodical way that Maine does it," Mills said.

Montana also allows legislative redistricting to take place after the 2012 elections, but it doesn't apply to congressional districts because the state has only one such district.

Selya said the judges will issue a written ruling in a couple of weeks. He gave Stern, Woodcock and Mills until next June 17 to file proposals on how a redistricting plan might be implemented.

Forcing the district boundaries to be redrawn now rather than in two years gives Republicans an upper hand in the redistricting. After years in the minority, the GOP holds the majority in both the House and Senate. Maine's two U.S. representatives, Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, are Democrats.

Mills and Woodcock both agree that politics plays a fundamental role whenever legislative districts are redrawn.

"If politics did not play a role, that would be surprising," Woodcock said.

Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster said Thursday's ruling would benefit his party when lawmakers realign the districts.

"I would assume they would draw the lines in their best interest because that's how politics work," he said.

Dunham, one of the plaintiffs, said she is a Republican was asked by the Maine Republican Party to take part in the suit. She was not at Thursday's hearing.

When the Democrats wielded majority control in Augusta, they controlled the redistricting process.

"So I guess it's the Republicans' turn," Dunham said.

The Associated Press