Redistricting in the Wake of Legislative Downsizing in Rhode Island

Redistricting is always a difficult process for a state legislature. Rhode Island's most recent redistricting effort was especially painful, because in 1994, voters eliminated approximately one-quarter of the seats in the General Assembly. [1] On June 9, 2006, in Parella v. Montalbano , the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed a Superior Court decision that held that the new Rhode Island Senate redistricting statute was constitutional. [2] The plaintiffs alleged that certain Senate districts were not "contiguous" and not "as compact in territory as possible" as required by the Rhode Island Constitution. [3] The case highlighted several important aspects of the redistricting debate by illustrating a court's reluctance to insert itself into the area of legislative redistricting and political gerrymandering, the amorphous nature of concepts such as compactness, contiguity, and communities of interest; and the unique problems a small state with peculiar geographic features, like Rhode Island, faces when redistricting.


Decisions by the electorate in the mid-1990s resulted in bitter consequences nearly a decade later. In November 1994, Rhode Island voters adopted amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution that significantly reduced the number of seats in the General Assembly beginning in January 2003. [4] The voter mandated "downsizing" shrank the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 100 to 75 seats and reduced the state Senate from 50 to 38 seats. [5] Increasing competition in legislative races was one of the primary goals of the downsizing. [6] There were, however, controversial consequences to the downsizing such as pairing a veteran African-American Senator against an upstart Latino politician from a formerly adjoining district. [7] The candidates claimed that it forced Latino and African-American voters to choose only one minority candidate. [8] Other candidates claimed that the redistricting process gave legislative leaders the opportunity to punish those who had spoken out against them by placing them in new districts consisting of a higher percentage of voters of the opposite party. [9]

Splitting the town of Bristol created another controversy that spawned the constitutional challenge to the redistricting statute. [10] Under the old plan, Bristol was split between two Senate districts, and the residents were a majority in one. [11] The new plan, by contrast, split the town among three districts, and the town's residents were not a majority in any of them. [12] The plan was developed by a sixteen member commission consisting of five members of the House of Representatives, five Senators, and six members of the public. [13] The Rhode Island General Assembly adopted the "redistricting statute" on February 20, 2002. [14] The plaintiffs filed a complaint challenging it on August 22, 2002. [15] The case went to trial without a jury in May 2003. [16]/a>

Parella v. Montalbano [17]

The plaintiffs' high burden of proof made their challenge of the redistricting statute difficult. In Rhode Island, a law enacted by the legislature is presumed to be constitutional and a court "will not annul a legislative enactment unless a challenging party can prove 'beyond a reasonable doubt' that the statute in question is repugnant to a constitutional provision." [18] A geographer and professor from Rhode Island College, Chester Smolski, testified for the plaintiffs that he was able to draft three plans superior to the challenged plan because they were more compact. [19] On cross-examination, however, Professor Smolski testified that the challenged plan was "not irrational," and he conceded that it would not be possible to draw five districts in the East Bay region without dividing either Bristol or Portsmouth into three districts. [20] During Professor Smolski's direct testimony, the attorney for the Senate objected frequently to emphasize that the question at issue was whether the legislature acted rationally as opposed to whether or not it could have developed a better plan. [21]

The Rhode Island Constitution requires that "[t]he senate shall be constituted on the basis of population and the senatorial districts shall be as nearly equal in population and as compact in territory as possible." [22] The court conducted a brief survey of Rhode Island law to illustrate the contours of the constitutional requirement of compactness. In Opinion to the Governor , the Rhode Island Supreme Court indicated that legislatures have "wide discretion as to the territorial structuring of the electoral districts," and that the state's bays, inlets, islands, rivers and lakes create irregular boundaries that make dividing districts into circular plans or squares difficult. [23] A principle purpose of compactness is to prevent political gerrymandering. [24] Contiguity is an important consideration in determining whether there was a violation of the principle of compactness. [25] The "compactness clause" is violated "only when a reapportionment plan creates districts solely for political considerations, without reference to other policies, in such a manner that the plan demonstrates a complete abandonment of any attempt to draw equal, compact and contiguous districts." [26] A plan was held unconstitutional, for example, when certain districts "unnecessarily and improperly crossed natural boundaries and violated the principle of contiguity for impermissible purposes." [27]

The court considered several factors to ultimately determine that the redistricting statute did not violate the compactness clause. The court reviewed contiguity, communities of interest, political gerrymandering, and population deviations. [28]

The court examined the notion of shore-to-shore contiguity. The plaintiffs argued that certain districts were "not contiguous because one must either traverse the land of another district or another state to get from one end of the districts to the other ends, and there are no bridges connecting them." [29] Although an accepted interpretation of contiguity is that "every part of a district [is] reachable from every other part without leaving the district or crossing its boundary," it is not the only interpretation. [30] Shore-to-shore contiguity has been established in several jurisdictions. [31] In Florida a court established shore-to-shore contiguity in a district with a lake despite the absence of connecting territory on the northern and southern shores. [32] Additionally, a court in Virginia upheld shore-to-shore contiguity even though there was no bridge connecting land. [33] Shore-to-shore contiguity has even been found to include the open seas within reasonable limits. [34] When the Rhode Island Supreme Court reviewed the 1966 redistricting plan in Opinion to the Governor , the plan, which was declared constitutional, included a district that lacked land based contiguity. [35] If land based contiguity was a necessity, then that plan would have not been constitutional. [36] The districts challenged under the current plan, though not contiguous on land, were deemed "contiguous on the basis of shore-to-shore contiguity." [37]

The court also considered whether there was "a complete disregard for existing communities of interest" to determine if the plan was irrational. [38] The court found that the legislature had to decide to divide either Bristol or Portsmouth into three districts. [39] The legislature chose to divide Bristol. [40] The plaintiffs failed to show that this decision lacked a rational basis. [41] The alternative plans offered by the plaintiffs may, or may not, have been superior, but ultimately they were "not sufficient, without more, to successfully challenge the constitutionality of the redistricting statute." [42]

The plaintiffs' argument that the redistricting statute's population deviations came "extremely close to violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment" did not persuade the court to invalidate the plan. [43] A 10% overall deviation in population is constitutionally acceptable. [44] Since the plan's median average population deviation as a whole was 9.91%, the court found that it did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. [45]

The court then considered whether there was a political gerrymander that presented evidence of "a violation of the principle of compactness." [46] The court stated that a political gerrymander occurs when the electoral districts are drawn to exclude from, or include within, voters whose political affinities may be surmised and whose political action is certain, without reference to an area's physical features and without a rational relationship to concerns such as "historical, natural, and political boundary lines." [47]

The court found that the plaintiffs failed to present compelling evidence of a political gerrymander. [48] Two senators suggested the presence of a political gerrymander, but neither assertion was substantiated by testimony. [49] One senator claimed that, under the new redistricting statute, he was prevented from holding the same senate leadership positions that he had under the prior plan. [50] Another senator noted that women seemed to have been placed in more difficult districts under the new redistricting statute. [51] The court found, however, that there was no evidence to suggest that any district was drawn "with an intent to favor or disfavor a person or group based solely upon political considerations," [52] and therefore the plaintiffs lacked proof of a political gerrymander. [53]

The plaintiffs had a high burden of proof to show that the redistricting statute adopted by the Rhode Island General Assembly violated the "compactness clause" of the Rhode Island Constitution. They failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute was "irrational" or "abandoned the established principle of compactness." [54] When voters mandate a legislative downsizing it will inevitably spark controversy and force the legislature to make difficult decisions when approving a new redistricting plan. As the country awaits the United States Supreme Court ruling on the Texas redistricting plan, the Rhode Island case is yet another example of the difficulties plaintiffs face when challenging a redistricting plan, and the court's reluctance to intervene in what has traditionally been the province of legislatures.

[1] Parella v. Montalbano, 2006 WL 1562234, at *1 (R.I. 2006)

[2] Id. at *3.

[3] Id. at *4.

[4] Id. at *1.

[5] Mary Shaffrey, Fewer politicians?, C ampaigns & Elections, Oct.-Nov. 2002, at 10.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Edward Fitzpatrick, Some see political payback in maps, Providence Journal Bulletin, December 9, 2001, at A1.

[10] Kristen Rasmussen, In division, Bristol united, Providence Journal Bulletin, April 7, 2002, at B1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Parella v. Montalbano at *1.

[14] Id .

[15] Id . at *4.

[16] Alex Kuffner, Revised Senate districts defy logic, lawyer says, Providence Journal Bulletin, May 6, 2003, at B1.

[17] The case, when originally tried in the Superior Court, was Parella v. Irons , naming William Irons in his official capacity as Majority Leader of the Rhode Island Senate. On appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court the case was Parella v. Montalbano, naming Joseph A. Montalbano in his official capacity as President of the Rhode Island Senate. In affirming the Superior Court's decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court appended the full text of the Superior Court opinion to the end of Parella v. Montalbano. All citations are to the Supreme Court decision.

[18] Parella v. Montalbano at *10.

[19] Id. at *5.

[20] Id.

[21] Alex Kuffner, Revised Senate districts defy logic, lawyer says, Providence Journal Bulletin, May 6, 2003, at B1.

[22] Parella v. Montalbano at *10.

[23] Id. at *13 (quoting Opinion to the Governor , 221 A.2d 799, 802 (R.I. 1966)).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at *14 (quoting Holmes v. Farmer, 475 A.2d 976, 986 (R.I. 1984)).

[27] Id. at *15 (quoting Licht v. Quattrocchi, 449 A.2d 887 (R.I. 1982)).

[28] Id. at *22.

[29] Id. at *25.

[30] Id. at *24.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. (citing In re Constitutionality of House Joint Resolution 1987 , 817 So.2d 819, 827-28 ( Fla. 2002)).

[33] Id . (citing Wilkins v. West, 571 S.E.2d 100 ( Va. 2002)).

[34] Id. (quoting Hickel v. Sourtheast Conference, 846 P.2d 38, 45( Alaska 1992) (noting that without reasonable limits Alaska would be contiguous with the entire Pacific Rim)).

[35] Id. at *25.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id. at *26.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at *27.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id. (citing Opinion to the Governor , 221 A.2d at 802).

[48] Id. at *28.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id. at *29.