'State of Jefferson' backers take long shot

The determined activists seeking to create a "State of Jefferson" in Northern California now want the federal courts to overturn half a century of precedent in how legislative districts are apportioned. They are even less likely to succeed at that than to get lawmakers to listen to their secession plan.

The State of Jefferson movement appears to have given up on including Southern Oregon in its imaginary 51st state. That's a good thing; the idea has a certain appeal in theory, but would be  unworkable in practice. Residents of the largely rural region may feel ignored by their respective state capitals, but they still get more financial support per capita than they give back in taxes.

Still, the frustrations behind the movement are real. The interests of rural Northern California are not the same as those of densely populated cities to the south, where the much larger population means control of most of the votes in the legislature.

That's where the new lawsuit comes in.

Filed in federal court last week against California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the suit argues that apportioning legislative seats by population deprives rural residents of representation by diluting their votes, and the specific concerns of rural counties get ignored. California's 40 state senators and 80 State Assembly members are not enough for a state of 40 million people, the plaintiffs argue.

They may have a point there — Oregon, with only 3 million residents, has 30 senators and 60 House members. But the lawsuit seeks to return to a geographic system of apportioning districts under which each county would have one representative and the state Legislature would have more members overall.

That's essentially how it was done until the early 1960s, when a series of court rulings found the geographic system unconstitutional. In 1964, the case of Reynolds v. Sims argued that Alabama's system, which was still based on Census figures from 1900, was unfair. Cities had grown much larger over the years, but still had the same number of legislative seats, while the sparsely populated rural areas had more votes in the legislature.

The Supreme Court ruled that the system violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it granted more weight to the votes of some state residents than others. Legislative districts, the court ruled, must be as nearly equal in population as possible.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the court majority, said, "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres."

That may be hard for State of Jefferson enthusiasts to swallow, but it's been the American way for more than 50 years.

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