Last spring the Legislature failed spectacularly at its once-a-decade job of redistricting, so paralyzed by GOP infighting that three federal judges ended up redrawing the maps. This week Kansas got a bill for that humiliating display – $389,000 the judges say it must pay for attorneys’ fees and expenses stemming from the resulting lawsuit. Consider it a fresh reminder of the need to do something as a state to reform redistricting for 2022, 2032 and beyond.
The best change would be creation of an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission, a model used by more than a dozen other states. The best time to pursue change surely is while the memories of last year are still sharp and painful. Too bad there’s been no such effort this year.
No doubt some of the redistricting warriors think voters delivered the remedy in last August’s GOP primary, when the ruling moderate majority in the Senate was brought down by conservative challengers supported by Gov. Sam Brownback.
But that’s a narrow partisan view that doesn’t account for the guilt on both sides of the redistricting fight. As the three federal judges wrote of the “legislative default” last spring: “Failing consensus, the process degenerated into blatant efforts to gerrymander various districts for ideological political advantage and to serve the political ambitions of various legislators.”
And now it’s costing taxpayers another $389,000 for part of the attorneys’ fees and expenses racked up on behalf of 15 legislators, business leaders and voters who were parties to the lawsuit. It’s little comfort that the judges didn’t grant the individuals involved the full $671,000 they’d requested.
Another argument for change: Redistricting court fights are a chronic problem in Kansas.
In last year’s ruling, the three judges noted a similar court intervention in 1982, after Gov. John Carlin vetoed two congressional reapportionment maps that had passed out of the Legislature. And court fights over maps in 1992 and 2002 risked postponing the August primaries in those years.
The states that have turned the job over to independent nonpartisan commissions haven’t eliminated politics from the process or kept unhappy stakeholders from filing lawsuits after the maps come out.
But when he was a state senator, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt had it right in arguing for letting an independent, nonpartisan entity make the new maps, which lawmakers would then respond to with up-or-down votes. And when Schmidt said in 2009 that the status quo invited “hyperpartisanship, legislative bitterness and personal animosity,” he could have been gazing into the future and describing the redistricting of 2012.
As Kansans cover last year’s legal bills for redistricting, state lawmakers should learn from that costly lesson and pass a nonpartisan fix for the future.