Small towns try to force redrawing of state Legislature boundaries

LITCHFIELD – The legal battle isn’t over for a group of New Hampshire towns who think the current method of parceling out state representatives leaves them out.

William O’Brien, attorney and executive director of the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation, is asking the state Supreme Court to examine a Merrimack County Superior Court ruling that denied the towns’ request to force a redistricting of the state House of Representatives.

The suit was filed on behalf of seven towns, including Litchfield and Wilton, with few, or no, residents elected to the current Statehouse. It seeks to bar Secretary of State William Gardner from holding the November elections until all towns with at least 3,100 people had their own representative.

The state attorney general’s office has until Aug. 17 to file a response, according to O’Brien.

The court will then schedule a date to hear oral arguments, he said.

The high court denied a motion for an emergency appeal shortly after the Superior Court’s ruling last month.

That denial killed the group’s hopes of the redistricting happening before the general election.

Former Litchfield representatives Ralph Boehm and Loren Jean and the towns of Enfield, Canaan, Tilton, Weare and Loudon are also named as petitioners on the suit.

The Legal Rights Foundation’s argument hinges on a 2006 amendment to the state constitution that, it claims, demands a redistricting so any town with 3,100 people has its own legislator.

That number is based on the state’s estimated population in the 2000 Census – 1,235,786 – divided by the 400 representatives in the House.

“Basically, what it is is just following the constitution. That shouldn’t be too heavy a burden on anybody,” said Jean, who represented Litchfield for a decade until 2002.

Superior Court Judge Carol Ann Conboy said in her decision the amendment made clear that the changes would be made after the next U.S. Census in 2010.

O’Brien and the Legal Rights Foundation argue voters expected, by virtue of the language of the amendment and voters’ guides, the changes to go into effect immediately.

“We’re convinced our arguments are solid, and we’re convinced the voters really wanted the amendment to come into effect immediately,” he said.

Litchfield is one of the most underrepresented towns in the state, according to Paul Mirski, a Legal Rights Foundation member and former state representative from Enfield. With 7,360 people, it qualifies for two representatives.

Now it’s lumped with Hudson and Pelham, making it difficult for a Litchfield resident to be elected, he said.

Twelve of the district’s 13 representatives are from Hudson and one is from Pelham.

Mirski said that’s like taxation without representation for Litchfield and other towns without so-called independent representation.

The state constitution requires the House redraw district lines every 10 years, according to Paul Smith, a legislative aide in the New Hampshire House Republican Office.

In 2002, a Supreme Court decision redistricted the House following a legislative deadlock along party lines over the redistricting plan. The last redistricting took place in 2004 when the House made a “handful” of changes to the 2002 plan, Smith said.