Hawaii’s elections can move ahead as planned under political boundaries that exclude nonresident military personnel, a panel of federal judges ruled Tuesday.

The court denied a preliminary injunction seeking to toss out the redistricting plan approved in March by the state Reapportionment Commission.

The judges said invalidating the plan would be “spawning chaos rather than confidence in the election process.”

The plaintiffs — eight Hawaii voters, including state Rep. Mark Takai — had argued the plan is unconstitutional and discriminatory because it removed more than 100,000 military personnel, their dependents and out-of-state university students from political district population totals. Four of the plaintiffs are military personnel or veterans.

Their lawsuit claims the plan violates the federal Equal Protection Clause.

“Although we recognize that the right to representation is fundamental, ‘a federal court cannot lightly interfere with or enjoin a state election,'” the order said, citing a 2003 California case.

U.S. District Judges J. Michael Seabright and Leslie Kobayashi and U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown of San Diego said “the equities and public interest tip overwhelmingly in (Reapportionment) Commission’s favor.”

The order said the plaintiffs did “not show that Hawaii attempted to single out non-resident servicemembers, servicemember dependents, or non-resident students for any reason other than their lack of permanent residency. … The record shows that the means Hawaii chose to achieve the result were rational and, even using the standard urged by (plaintiffs), pass close constitutional scrutiny.”

The judges said deciding which population base states should use is more a political decision, not one that courts should determine.

“In recent years, various courts have considered whether the citizen population is an acceptable districting basis and have held that under (Burns v. Richardson), the matter is a political question best left to states,” the order said. “It is hardly up to us to meddle in a state choice with which the Supreme Court as well as circuit courts have deemed ‘no constitutionally founded reason to interfere.'”

The court agreed with arguments made by state Deputy Attorney General Brian Aburano, who is defending the Office of Elections and the Reapportionment Commission. Aburano said invalidating the existing plan would “cause a chaotic scene.”

Aburano told the court at a hearing Friday that shifting gears would delay the primary election possibly until October, or force the state to hold two primary elections — one for federal races, which are not impacted by the lawsuit, and another primary for state and county elections once a new redistricting plan is implemented.

“Although (plaintiffs’) counsel opined at the hearing that the task would be ‘mission difficult, not mission impossible,’ we disagree,” the judges said. “The above chronology leaves little doubt that, at this late date, there is no room for judicial intervention without significantly interrupting the election process.

“Spawning chaos rather than confidence in the election process is a result we cannot endorse. Absent compelling evidence that the election will not be interrupted, we find that the equities and public interest weigh decisively against granting the preliminary injunction.”

In addition to claiming that the reapportionment plan disenfranchises military personnel, the plaintiffs argued the plan fails to apportion populations of each district equally across the state. Robert Thomas, attorney for the plaintiffs, acknowledged in court that so-called “canoe districts” — a single district covering portions of more than one island — would be the only way to address that.

Tuesday’s order noted this issue is not new.

“The issue has been ‘ever present in [Hawaii’s] reapportionment cases.’ And the parties appear to agree that the choice is straightforward: Either keep Kauai as a single district (but cause large deviations) or require canoe districts (to balance populations equally),” the order said.

But, the judges said they aren’t evaluating that challenge at this point. Granting a preliminary injunction for that challenge, the judges said, would require the commission to start from scratch to create canoe districts and re-balance populations.

Thomas had admitted at Friday’s hearing that it’s too late to implement a new plan for this year’s elections.

The underlying lawsuit will proceed to trial.

The Reapportionment Commission initially came up with a plan in September that removed about 16,500 military and college students because they weren’t “permanent” residents, as called for in the state constitution.

Thomas has said that plan, as well as an August 2011 plan, could be acceptable alternatives to the existing plan.

The September plan was challenged in two separate lawsuits for including too many non-resident military and their families as part of the state’s population. Those suits contended that counting these populations had cost the Big Island an additional Senate seat it would otherwise gain due to population growth.

The Hawaii Supreme Court in January ruled the plan did in fact violate the Hawaii Constitution and had to be redone.

When the commission reconvened to draw up new plans, it removed more than 100,000 active-duty military and dependents and out-of-state college students, a change that shifted a Senate seat from Oahu to the Big Island.

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