PORTLAND – A lawsuit that aims to speed up the redistricting of Maine’s congressional districts is itself on a fast track, a panel of three federal judges said in Portland on Wednesday.

If the lawsuit prevails, the congressional districts will be redrawn in 2012 — before the next congressional elections — rather than in 2013 as currently scheduled.

The district boundaries must be redrawn because the 2010 U.S. Census revealed population shifts over the previous decade that resulted in an imbalance in Maine’s two congressional districts — the first district has 668,515 residents and the second district has 659,848.

The judicial panel, chaired by a member of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, gave the parties three weeks to submit written briefs. The panel will likely listen to oral arguments in the second week in June, just before the Legislature recesses on June 15.

The lawsuit is opposed by the Democratic Party, which fears an early redistricting would enable Republicans, who recently won control of the state House and Senate, to use their newfound clout to draw boundaries that favor their candidates. A two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature is required to approve new district lines.

Former Attorney General Janet Mills, now of the firm Preti Flaherty, represents the Maine Democratic Party as an intervenor in the case.

Plaintiffs William Desena and Sandra Dunham of Cape Elizabeth say that waiting until 2013 to redraw the districts would disenfranchise them under the U.S. Constitution because their votes in the first district in the 2012 elections would carry less weight than those cast in the second district.

Timothy Woodcock, of Eaton Peabody in Bangor, represents the plaintiffs. He said the state has an obligation to use the latest census data as soon as possible.

“It’s the most current, most pertinent and most accurate data,” he said. “If they (the judges) agree with our position, I would expect the Legislature to begin to redraw the lines.”

Mills said after the hearing that the process for redrawing the districts is vital to their fairness. The process must be bipartisan, and the public must have the opportunity to be heard, she said.

“I don’t want to see anything railroaded through,” she said.

Historically, the district boundaries have, at least initially, been developed by appointed commissions with members evenly split among the parties. Courts have stepped in when two-thirds of the Legislature could not agree on a plan. The two-thirds majority is required by state law, but the law could be changed by a simple majority vote by both houses.

Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said the party is concerned about potential political “shenanigans” if the Republican majority draws district boundaries. A decade ago, Republicans proposed districts that put the two incumbent Democrats — Tom Allen and Mike Michaud — in the same district.

A Democratic Party fund-raising solicitation Wednesday portrayed the lawsuit as an attempt by Republicans to gerrymander the state’s two districts so Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, Democrats from North Haven and Millinocket respectively, would both live in the same district. If this happened, only one could run for re-election or the two would have to face off in the primaries.

Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster said he was aware of the suit but that the GOP is not involved in it.

“It’s not like there’s some scheme, with Republicans behind it, to do this,” he said.

Woodcock said the lawsuit was brought with Republican leaders’ knowledge but that it was not contingent on their approval. He did not comment on the plaintiffs’ political affiliation, but Democrats say they are Republican activists.

The judicial panel consists of U.S. District Court Judges for Maine D. Brock Hornby and George Singal and First Circuit Judge Bruce Selya, the chairman.

Selya said the case will be considered in phases. Initially, the judges will determine whether the imbalance in the districts violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to due process and the principal of one person, one vote. If there is no violation, then the case ends and the redrawing schedule remains as is.

If the judges decide the current arrangement does violate the plaintiffs’ rights to equal representation, they will then consider how to remedy the imbalance.

That could involve calling the Legislature into special session to consider district boundaries or having the judges decide, Selya said.

Having the three-judge panel hear the case shows the importance the court assigns to it, Woodcock said. An appeal of the panel’s ruling would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

The lawsuit ostensibly targets Gov. Paul LePage, Secretary of State Charles Summers and Republican legislative leaders. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is charged with arguing to keep the district-redrawing schedule the way it is. A spokesperson for the office would not comment on the pending litigation.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com