– As the state Senate makes a last-ditch effort to draw district maps acceptable to moderate and conservative Republicans, Secretary of State Kris Kobach filed court papers asking that federal judges redistrict Kansas – and offering to draw the districts himself.
Kobach said the court could select from maps that have been submitted in the Legislature or draw their own. Or, his filing said, “alternatively Defendant (Kobach) stands ready to submit valid plans” drawing districts for congress, the Legislature and the state Board of Education for the court’s consideration.
The legal papers are in response to a lawsuit filed by Robyn Essex, a Republican precinct committeewoman from Olathe. Essex is represented in court by Brent E. Hayden, a Missouri lawyer who formerly served as chief of staff to Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson.
Both O’Neal and Kobach, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, are closely aligned with the conservative wing of their party. Conservatives are planning to challenge at least eight senators in the August primary in an effort to swing the Senate more to the right.
In a news conference, Kobach said he “fervently” hopes the Legislature does reach agreement on district maps.
“This task does not belong in the hands of a plaintiff and the secretary of state and three federal judges,” Kobach said. “This task belongs, under the Kansas Constitution, in the hands of the Legislature. Time is very short; they can still render this case moot. But we have to proceed.”
Essex’s case argues that the current House, Senate and congressional districts are unlawful because of wide population shifts since the districts were drawn 10 years ago. The Kansas Constitution tasks the Legislature with redrawing districts every 10 years to ensure equality of representation.
This year, redistricting has been held up by a political battle pitting moderate Republican senators against both the House and conservatives in their own chamber.
A map that passed the Senate favors moderates, while the House has approved a map friendlier to conservatives.
While stopping short of endorsing or opposing any existing map, Kobach singled out the Senate for criticism and accused senators of gerrymandering, or drawing odd-shaped districts to provide a political advantage to some candidates.
Kobach said if he is called on to draw districts, his guiding principles will be “that districts be compact, that communities of interest be preserved, and notions of fundamental fairness demand that you don’t gerrymander in a way to give one side or another an unfair advantage.
“I think one of the reasons the Senate has been so dysfunctional has been because they have abandoned those basic principles and have been torn apart by efforts to gerrymander (and) to take particular individuals out of districts. That simply has no place in redistricting.”
Kobach praised the House for passing maps that achieved “broad consensus” while the Senate’s map passed that body by a minimum majority.
“According to the House, and I think these are legitimate concerns; one is that one of the challengers was redistricted out of the district in which he would have challenged the sitting senator,” Kobach said. “The other concern is that the Senate map deviated population-wise more than is prudent.”
The challenger Kobach referenced is Wichita businessman Gary Mason, a political newcomer who has announced a challenge to Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick. Under some Senate maps, Mason would no longer be in the district currently represented by McGinn and could not run against her without moving to a new home.
Senate redistricting Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, said the Senate is not dysfunctional, just politically divided. He said it’s no surprise that Kobach is taking the side of the more conservative House.
“I have to call it what it is,” Owens said. “There’s no question in anybody’s mind that the secretary of state’s leanings are very conservative, so he’s joined the crew of conservatives who blame the moderates.”
In Kobach’s response to the Essex lawsuit, he agreed with the plaintiff that it is unlikely that the Senate will create a district map that will also pass the House and Gov. Sam Brownback.
“We’re now at a point where the state is in grave danger of violating federal law,” Kobach said.
If they can’t reach accord on redistricting by the end of this week, he proposes that the court appoint a three-judge panel to pass the maps.
Kobach said the federal courts are the only venue that can take over redistricting from the Legislature. The state Supreme Court has the authority only to review maps passed by the Legislature and governor, he said.
“I’ve been a professor of constitutional law for much of my career,” he said, adding that he has taught classes on court decisions at issue in the case.
Owens, who is also a lawyer, said he believes the state Supreme Court will have jurisdiction on the House and Senate maps, not the federal courts as Kobach maintains.
“I’m very surprised to see that an attorney with his (Kobach’s) national involvements would make a statement like that when it’s very clear that the jurisdiction for the state issues is in the state Supreme Court,” he said. “They have original jurisdiction on a mandamus action dealing with the maps.”
He said the federal court would likely defer the state legislative maps to the Kansas court. The congressional map would probably be the only one decided at the federal level, he added.
Throughout the day, a working group of seven senators – three conservative Republicans, three moderate Republicans and one Democrat – went through the tedious process of trying to draft a map that might gain a broader consensus.
Sitting in the basement office of the Legislative Research Department, they used mapping software to move district lines around, trying to meet as many senators’ preferences as possible.
At the end of the day, no new maps emerged from the process. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka and the lone Democrat in the group, said the process will continue today.
Because of the ongoing dispute, the state has already moved the deadline to file to run for the Legislature, the school board and congress from June 1 to June 11. The primary election is currently scheduled for Aug. 7. The state also must meet a June 23 federal deadline for mailing ballots to military personnel and overseas citizens.