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Redistricting cases combined

Challenge likely on to Supreme Court

Barring any technical hangups, the five lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the New Hampshire House redistricting plan will be consolidated into the same case and sent to the state Supreme Court by the end of the week.

Lawyers representing the various petitioners, as well as the state and House Speaker Bill O'Brien, who is seeking to intervene on behalf of the House of Representatives, gathered yesterday in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester to reach an agreement on basic facts in the case and finalize a list of legal questions they hope will be answered by the state's high court.

'As soon as it gets to my desk, which will be right away, we'll sign off on that,' Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown said of the request for transfer to the state Supreme Court.

The cities of Concord and Manchester, the town of Gilford, a group of Democrats, and a group of House Republicans have all challenged the House's 10-year plan to redraw districts that reflect population changes in the 2010 census. The lawsuits argue the House unnecessarily denied various towns and wards their own representatives - such as Concord's Ward 5 - and instead lumped together communities with differing interests. Democratic Gov. John Lynch made similar arguments when he vetoed the redistricting bill in March, but the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode Lynch's veto to send the bill into law.

Tom Donovan, the attorney representing the city of Manchester, said he and others are hoping to get the case to the state Supreme Court as soon as possible. The petitioners are hoping to block the implementation of the redistricting plan prior to the state primary elections in September and allow time for the creation of an alternate plan.

'We are mindful that the legislative wheels are turning,' Donovan said. Brown said, 'I'm trying to get this moving as fast as I can without stepping on anybody's toes.'

Whether O'Brien should be allowed to intervene on behalf of the House is still a point of contention. O'Brien argued in an affidavit that 'based on my extensive knowledge of the redistricting process and the enacted redistricting plan, I am best situated to explain and defend the redistricting process.'

The Senate, through its attorney Rich Lehmann, has raised constitutional concerns about O'Brien testifying in court on legislative matters. Motions were filed asking Brown to reconsider his decision to allow O'Brien to intervene in the Manchester and Democratic lawsuits.

'The prospect of the House or the Senate or groups of individual legislators being joined as defendants in lawsuits challenging laws they pass establishes a precedent that we're trying to avoid,' Lehmann said.

Rep. Tony Soltani of Epsom, speaking for the group of House Republicans, objected to O'Brien representing the House as an institution.

'If he wants to parachute in as a party individually or in his capacity as a representative, God bless him,' Soltani said.

But Brown said he's not inclined to reconsider the issue before sending the case to the high court, where the petitioners can appeal O'Brien's intervention.

'Would it honestly be better to frame the issue to the high court, they issue a ruling so down the road there will always be a record as to whether or not coming in the manner that the speaker did is an appropriate process?' Brown said.

Martin Honigberg, representing the Democratic petitioners, said he could wait to argue O'Brien's involvement at the next level.

'We'd like not to have to litigate that side issue at the Supreme Court but we understand where you are,' Honigberg told Brown.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @mattspolar.)

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