By Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court upheld West Virginia's congressional restricting map as constitutional on Tuesday, overturning a lower court order that found the plan violated the principle of "one person, one vote."
In an unsigned opinion, the court said that a federal district court panel had erred in voiding the map in January and had failed to give appropriate deference to the Democratic-controlled legislature that had crafted it.
West Virginia had argued that it had legitimate interests in allowing small variations in populations served by each district such as making districts compact, not splitting counties between districts, and avoiding contests between incumbents.
The drawing of congressional districts often generates litigation because of its potential to reduce political power of various constituents, including political parties and individual municipalities or counties.
The Jefferson County Commission claimed that West Virginia's plan appeared to dilute the voting power in the state's faster-growing Eastern Panhandle by splitting that region up.
The state's plan also had a population variance between the largest and smallest districts of 0.79 percent of the population of the average district, in line with plans that the Supreme Court had upheld in the past.
But the Supreme Court said it was not essential that a state draw districts with "precise mathematical equality" so long as small variations serve legitimate objectives.
It said such deviations were justified in this case, in light of the state's interests and the absence of better alternatives that offered greater population equality.
The court noted that one alternative, branded by supporters as the "Perfect Plan," would have achieved virtual population equality - a population difference of one person between the largest and smallest districts - at a cost of splitting counties, pitting two incumbents against each other, and moving one-third of the state's population into a new district.
West Virginia has three congressional representatives.
"We're incredibly disappointed," Stephen Skinner, a lawyer for the Jefferson County Commission, said in a telephone interview. "The law until today has been crystal clear, and the Supreme Court has changed the standards. To place arbitrary county lines over mathematical certainty does not comport with truly representative government."
The Supreme Court had put the lower court order on hold while it reviewed the matter. It returned the case to the district court for further proceedings.
The case, brought in the name of West Virginia's secretary of state, is Tennant et al v. Jefferson County Commission, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-1184.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)