Politics & Government

June 4, 2012

Flurry of briefs filed in Kansas redistricting case after last week’s testimony

Some of the state’s biggest political names have made final attempts to influence a panel of federal judges before they redraw the state’s 179 legislative, congressional and state school board districts.

Some of the state’s biggest political names have made final attempts to influence a panel of federal judges before they redraw the state’s 179 legislative, congressional and state school board districts.

Gov. Sam Brownback, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Attorney General Derek Schmidt are urging the court to draw districts that vary in population by less than 2 percent.

State legislators are urging the court to go with – or at least use as a starting point – redistricting maps that made it through at least the House or the Senate. In those maps, the population from district to district varies as much as 9.86 percent.

The judges are grappling with how much the population can deviate from district to district without violating the Constitution’s guarantee of equal representation – and the state politicians are more than willing to help them decide.

While all maps are in play, the real fight is over the Senate, where moderate Republicans hold sway and can occasionally thwart or modify the more conservative policies favored by the governor and the House. Conservative interests have vowed to unseat as many as eight moderates in Republican primaries in an effort to gain control of the chamber.

Following two days of testimony at the district court in Kansas City, Kan., last week, eight of the 27 parties to the case filed post-hearing briefs. Two who weren’t officially parties to the suit filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

In addition to Brownback, Kobach and Schmidt, seven state legislators and the Johnson County Commission have weighed in.

The three-judge federal panel consists of the Kansas City’s district’s chief judge, Kathryn Vratil; its senior judge, John Lungstrom; and the chief judge of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Mary Beck Briscoe.

In the final day of their hearings Wednesday, the judges indicated they had problems with all the maps that made it partway through the Legislature – even a state House district map that was unopposed by anyone at the trial – and that they intended to work with legislative staff to draft their own maps.

Population deviation from district to district was the biggest problem they cited. In the maps that were passed by one house of the Legislature or the other, the populations across districts varied from 5.22 percent to 9.86 percent.

For the first time ever, the House and Senate were unable to reach an accord on any maps to redraw districts, a task they’re required to carry out every 10 years to equalize representation by accounting for population shifts in the Census.

The process broke down completely because of a political battle pitting moderate state senators against the staunchly conservative governor and like-minded majority in the House.

Both sides spent the first several months of the legislative session trying to draw districts that would work to their faction’s political advantage – and the final weeks fine-tuning their maps to try to pass muster in the court.

With the session now over and the decision solely in the judges’ hands, here’s where the state officials made their final stands:

•  Brownback – In his friend-of-the-court brief, the governor argues that the population deviation in any of the maps that came from the Legislature is too much. The governor cites case law indicating that while legislatures are generally given a 10 percent cushion, courts drawing redistricting maps have to comply with closer tolerances. The governor recommends maps with no more than 2 percent deviation. The only state Senate map before the court that complies with that standard is Essex A, named for Robyn Essex, a Johnson County Republican who is the named plaintiff. An aide to the governor supplied the map to State Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, who had the map analyzed and posted by the Department of Legislative Research so it could be introduced at the trial.
•  Kobach – Much like Brownback, Kobach favors a map with less than 2 percent deviation. Technically the defendant in the court case, Kobach urged the judges to pass maps no later than June 20 to avoid operational problems with organizing the Aug. 7 primary and Nov. 6 general election.
•  Schmidt – Allowed to intervene in the case to address potential legal costs to the state, Schmidt urged the court to avoid prolonging the battle by drawing maps with population deviations below 2 percent and that are as politically neutral as possible. Schmidt warned the court against “becoming yet another political actor in the months-long saga that has been Kansas legislative reapportionment in 2012.”
•  State Sen. Tim Owens – Owens, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, and two co-intervenors argue that the court can legally approve maps where the population deviation is more than 2 percent, as long as there’s a reason to do that. Owens, part of the moderate Republican faction, supports a Senate map that passed the Senate called “Buffalo 30 Revised.” That map creates a new district in fast-growing Johnson County by combining two districts between Wichita and the Oklahoma state line into one. The map is seen to favor Senate moderates because it would draw at least three conservative challengers out of districts where they plan to challenge incumbent Republican senators.
•  Reps. Brenda Landwehr and Greg Smith, and Wichita businessman Gary Mason – This trio of conservative Republicans filed a brief assailing both the maps that passed the Senate, Buffalo 30 and “Ad Astra Revised.” All three are planning to challenge sitting moderate senators and allege that the maps were drawn specifically to torpedo their candidacies by either drawing their homes out of districts where they want to run, or creating districts that would heavily favor the moderates.
•  Rep. Paul Davis and former U.S. Rep. Bill Roy – The two Democrats are rooting for the moderates and argue that the population deviations in the Buffalo 30 plan are justifiable. They say there is no hard and fast limit on population deviation, as Kobach claims. “The Secretary of State picks an arbitrary deviation of 2 percent as his view of the maximum. But there is no controlling authority to mandate this … Why not zero? Or four? Or 9.86?”
•  Sens. King, Steve Abrams and Ray Merrick – Through the legislative session and the court case, this conservative triumvirate has fought for an often-revised family of maps called “For the People,” which favors conservative candidates and does not provide a new Senate district in Johnson County. Like Owens, Davis and Roy, they argue that the maps don’t have to meet a 2 percent population threshold. But they say their maps are better than the Buffalo 30 map at “preserving the integrity of county lines, (and) grouping together of major communities of interest.”
•  Johnson County Commission – In a friend-of-the court brief, the commissioners note that their county has added more than 93,000 people since the last Census – about 20,000 more than the number of people in a Senate district. The commission is asking the court to increase the county’s representation in the Senate from seven seats to eight, rather than dividing county residents into surrounding districts, as the For the People maps do.

The judges have not indicated how soon they may issue a ruling.

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