High court goes with expert in redrawing congressional districts

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May 31—CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously approved new congressional districts recommended by its court-appointed expert, moving only five small towns from the 1st District to the 2nd District.

The decision came less than two hours after the five justices heard oral arguments from lawyers for legislative leaders and Democratic activists.

The justices openly agreed the job to bring these two districts in line with population shifts after the 2020 Census has fallen to them since the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu have been unable to reach agreement on a map.

On Friday, Sununu vetoed the two plans lawmakers had presented to him before they headed home for the summer and for the candidate filing season that begins today.

New Hampshire became the only state in the country whose lawmakers and governor failed to reach a consensus.

The court's action will allow the candidate filing period to stay on schedule, said Assistant Attorney General Myles Matteson, representing Secretary of State David Scanlan.

John Devaney, the lead lawyer representing former House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, had urged the court to adopt the plan developed by Nathaniel Persily, a court-appointed special master and Stanford Law professor.

Persily's map moved five towns — Albany, Campton, Jackson, New Hampton and Sandwich from the 1st District to the 2nd District.

"We urge the court to adopt the special master plan and do so today so that the candidate filing period can resume on June 1," had said.

In their decision, the justices agreed their expert had come up with the "least-change" option.

Senate Redistricting Committee Chairman James Gray, R-Rochester, said he was glad the matter was settled.

"While we're now able to go forward with the candidate sign-up period and fall elections, redistricting remains a legislative process that is best done by those who are elected by and accountable to the people of New Hampshire," Gray said.

House Democratic Leader David Cote of Nashua praised the court's decision.

"Every taxpayer dollar that was spent on this case is a direct result of the Republican Party's inability to put partisanship aside and redistrict in a fair manner. While many Granite Staters are struggling to make ends meet, the GOP is shamefully wasting your tax dollars in pursuit of rigged districts to benefit themselves," Cote said in a statement.

Specifically, the court-approved plan will move Albany, Campton, Jackson, New Hampton and Sandwich from the 1st District represented by Chris Pappas into the one served by five-term incumbent Annie Kuster.

The five towns affected by the shift, tucked in the northern Lakes Region and southern White Mountains Region, have a total of 8,973 residents. The shift leaves the 1st District with 688,764 people, one less than the 2nd District.

Both districts are now represented by Democrats — Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster, respectively.

The only plans Republican leaders pushed at the State House during the 2022 legislative session would have made dramatic changes to the two districts, making the 1st District more Republican-leaning and the 2nd District more Democrat-leaning.

The first one Sununu vetoed (HB 52) moved more than 500,000 people and 75 towns and city wards.

The second one moved Pappas and Kuster into the same district and bunched the state's three largest cities together (SB 200), which critics said would have left rural towns around them poorly represented.

Sununu said he vetoed both plans because they failed to keep the districts competitive and could insulate an incumbent from a serious challenge and make him or her less responsive to constituents.

Last month, however, lawyers for the GOP leaders submitted a new alternative never seen at the State House that would only move 8,968 — five fewer people than the court master's plan would.

This little-seen GOP alternative would have put Bartlett, Albany, Sandwich, Campton and Hart's Location into the 2nd District.

As far as GOP lawmakers were concerned, this court-approved map will only apply until they can replace it with one early on in the 2023 session, said Sean List, lawyer for House Speaker Sherman Packard.

"It is pretty clear the governor is going to defer to this court, and we will be back at it next session," List said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com