CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday blocked a ruling by a panel of federal judges that had struck down West Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan, allowing the state to rely on that map in this year’s U.S. House of Representatives races.

The justices granted a stay sought by state officials pending an appeal of the Jan. 3 decision. Their petition had cited West Virginia’s tight, ongoing election calendar. Among other deadlines, the candidate filing period ends Jan. 28 and the primary is May 8.

Those officials included Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s election chief.

“This decision gives us clear direction for the 2012 election cycle meaning the candidate filing period and election procedural timeline are in place and will not have to be changed,” Tennant said in a statement.

The eventual appeal will come from two of the other petitioning officials, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler. They have said they will challenge the Jan. 3 finding that the Legislature-approved redistricting map is unconstitutional, and that ruling’s mandate for a new plan.

Both the House and Senate had passed the map with bipartisan and nearly unanimous margins. Kessler said Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court appeal should be filed in about a month.

The Marshall County Democrat also noted that while officials had petitioned Chief Justice John Roberts for the stay, the entire court considered the request.

“That tells me there’s a significant likelihood that the permanent relief that would be requested would be granted,” said Kessler, a lawyer.

The Jefferson County Commission challenged that redrawing, and was joined by Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper. A lawyer for the commission, Stephen Skinner, disagreed with Kessler’s reading of Friday’s action but also expressed disappointment with the stay.

“This means the Legislature is going to drag this out,” Skinner said. “We’re going to be dealing with this for a long time.”

Skinner also said he expects the West Virginia appeal to attract an array of interest groups seeking to weigh in on the case, given its potential effect on the redistricting process.

“I’m sorry that the legislative leadership doesn’t want to follow the one-person, one-vote rule,” Skinner said, adding that “We absolutely look forward to appearing before the US Supreme Court.”

Anthony Majestro, Thompson’s lawyer in the case, agreed that it should attract major interest. He also said that Friday’s stay allows West Virginia to avoid a fifth special election less than two years. The state held two sets of special primary and general elections, in 2010 after the death of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and last year after now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin resigned as governor upon winning Byrd’s seat.

With West Virginia’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among those offices on the ballot this year, candidate filings for all the 2012 races began last week. Election officials also face a series of looming deadlines, including several addressing the printing and distribution of ballots. A federal law that aims to assist military and overseas voters sets some of these time limits.

By 2-1, the U.S. District Court panel concluded that state officials failed to justify why the redrawn 2nd Congressional District contained several thousand more people than the other two.

That majority, 4th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert King and U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, later relented on a Jan. 17 deadline for officials to submit a new plan. But they continued to bar the targeted map from this year’s elections.

In the wake of the 2010 Census results, the Legislature had merely moved one county — Mason — from the 2nd District to the 3rd District. The resulting challenge argues that this redistricting failed to provide equal representation as called for by both the West Virginia and U.S. constitutions. They invoked a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires districts as exactly equal as possible unless state officials have explained valid public policy reasons.

The state Senate and House of Delegates passed this plan during an August special session. Lawyers for state officials defending the plan have cited the nearly unanimous margins, and how the new maps for the legislative districts spurred far more conflict among lawmakers. Those legislative plans also prompted legal challenges, but the West Virginia Supreme Court rejected them all in November.

The 2nd Congressional District stretches across West Virginia from the Ohio River to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the pending challenge also alleges that it violates the state constitution’s mandate for compact districts. The plaintiffs argue that this unfair outcome stems from the redistricting that followed the 1990 Census, when the state lost a U.S. House seat. The Eastern Panhandle region ended up in a district shared with Kanawha County, the state’s most populous and home to the state capital.

The Jan. 3 decision stopped short of ruling on the compactness issue.

“This is all about a problem that the Legislature created, and that they have the opportunity to solve,” Skinner said Friday. “They would rather disadvantage, certainly the Eastern Panhandle, instead of fixing the problem.”

Opposing the state petition, the Jefferson County Commission had instead advocated for an alternative redistricting proposal introduced Monday in the state Senate. The Legislature’s 60-day regular session started last week. At least three other redistricting bills were also introduced this week.

Kessler’s majority leader, John Unger, is lead sponsor of the alternative favored by the plaintiffs. Also from the Eastern Panhandle, the Berkeley County Democrat has been a vocal advocate of redrawing the 2nd District and separating that region from Charleston.

“I welcome the U.S. Supreme Court taking an independent look,” Unger said Friday. “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will see that snake, that snake of a district.”

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