Politics & Government

Court allows lawmakers, voters to intervene in redistricting suit

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Three federal judges who will set new political boundaries for Kansas ruled Monday that at least 13 people — including a congressman, two state lawmakers and two Wichita businessmen — will be allowed to participate in a lawsuit over the Legislature’s failure to approve any redistricting plans.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the defendant in the case, had asked the court to limit who could intervene. He asked the judges initially to reject requests from seven people, including Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, a key figure in the Legislature’s impasse over redistricting.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a freshman Republican who represents the 3rd Congressional District in the Kansas City metropolitan area, filed his request to intervene just hours before Monday’s hearing. The other legislator allowed to intervene is House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. Kobach didn’t object to his involvement.

The Wichita businessmen intervening are Walter Berry and Lynn Nichols. Berry is president of the Berry Cos. and chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Nichols is president of Yingling Aviation and on the chamber board.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a freshman Republican who represents Wichita and south-central Kansas in the 4th Congressional District, said in a statement that he chose not to intervene and had confidence that the judges would do their best to “ensure a workable solution.”

Kobach had asked the court to impose new congressional, state Senate, state House and State Board of Education maps by June 4, a week before the state’s candidate filing deadline, so that the Aug. 7 primary election could be held with relatively few administrative problems. He argued that allowing all comers to intervene would delay the case.

But presiding U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil told Kobach that his proposed schedule could be too ambitious. She and U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum also told Kobach potential issues in administering elections are not their top concern and that they want to limit evidence as little as possible in handling the case quickly. A trial is scheduled for May 29 and 30.

"It seems like you’re trying to restrict the information that’s coming to us," Vratil told Kobach from the bench.

Kobach argued that any interested parties could file friend-of-the-court arguments that include redistricting proposals, though not being allowed to participate directly would prevent them from putting on witnesses and limit their rights to appeal the judges’ decisions.

"I think we have plenty of interests already represented," he said.

A bitter feud between GOP factions in the Legislature, anticipating primary elections this summer that will determine which camp controls the Senate next year, prevented passage of any redistricting proposals. As the committee’s chairman and a GOP moderate, Owens was a key figure in the debate, drafting and defending proposals for new Senate districts that conservative Republicans strongly criticized.

Kansas is the only state in which legislators failed to produce a congressional redistricting plan, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Normally, a federal court reviews a congressional map already approved by lawmakers, and the Kansas Supreme Court examines legislative and Board of Education districts that have been passed.

The three judges asked about obtaining the same computer map-drawing software used by legislators, and Vratil said they might retain their own experts.

"I like to write on blank sheets of paper," said one panel member, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The individuals intervening argued their interests can’t be adequately represented by either Kobach, a conservative Republican, or Robyn Renee Essex, a Republican precinct committee member from Olathe who filed the lawsuit earlier this month.

Berry said he intervened because the chamber couldn’t; intervenors must be voters. Berry is a voter in Sedgwick County and Nichols is a voter in Butler County. They have enlisted Foulston Siefkin lawyers James D. Oliver of Overland Park and Jay Fowler of Wichita to represent them.

Berry said the Wichita area needs to have representation in the lawsuit because some proposed Senate maps would reduce the area’s influence in Topeka by creating a district that runs from the east Wichita and Andover area down to far south Kansas, pitting incumbent Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, against Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City.

"We wouldn’t have appropriate representation in Topeka," Berry said.

Wichita businessman Gary Mason, who plans to challenge incumbent Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, is on the chamber’s board. But Berry said his role in the lawsuit isn’t intended to try to ensure Mason can run against McGinn.

"This is not positioning the chamber for any specific map or any specific candidate," he said.

Berry said he’s not sure how the case will play out.

"This is all uncharted territory," he said. "I wish we weren’t in this position."