Top court: Kansas Constitution allows partisan redistricting

Jun 21, 2022, 9:32 AM | Updated: 3:27 pm
FILE - In this file image dated Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, this illustration from the Kansas Legislati...

FILE - In this file image dated Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, this illustration from the Kansas Legislative Research Department shows the new Kansas congressional districts by different colors, with the lines representing the old boundaries. Kansas' highest court has declared that the state constitution does not prohibit partisan gerrymandering. The justices split 4-3 Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in explaining their reasons for previously upholding a Republican congressional redistricting law. (Kansas Legislative Research Department via AP, File)

(Kansas Legislative Research Department via AP, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ top court declared Tuesday that the state constitution doesn’t prohibit partisan gerrymandering, prompting one dissenting justice to accuse the majority of ignoring a “full-scale assault on democracy” from a Republican congressional redistricting law.

The state Supreme Court issued the opinion explaining its 4-3 decision last month to approve the new congressional map. It previously issued only a brief opinion that did not explain the majority’s reasons.

The new map makes it harder for the only Democrat in the Kansas congressional delegation, two-term Rep. Sharice Davids, to win reelection in her Kansas City-area district. Davids is the state’s first openly lesbian and Native American woman in Congress.

Dissenting Justice Eric Rosen argued that the decision moves Kansas toward a “one-party system of government,” aids a “power grab” and authorizes “political chicanery.”

“In turning a blind eye to this full-scale assault on democracy in Kansas, the majority blithely ignores the plain language of this state’s Constitution,” Rosen wrote.

Lawsuits over new congressional maps proliferated this year across the U.S., with Republicans looking to recapture a U.S. House majority in November’s midterm elections. Maps in at least 18 states inspired lawsuits, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

In the Kansas Supreme Court’s majority opinion Tuesday, Justice Caleb Stegall said the state constitution’s guarantee of equal legal protection for all citizens does not prohibit the Legislature from considering partisan factors when redrawing lines each decade to make districts as equal in population as possible. The Legislature has Republican supermajorities and traditionally has been controlled by the GOP.

Stegall also argued that unless the state Supreme Court set a “zero tolerance” standard on partisan gerrymandering, it has no clear standards for when it should be prohibited.

“Are there any manageable and neutral judicial standards by which judges can decide that question without resort to our own partisan biases?” Stegall wrote.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican running for governor, praised the court’s majority, saying it “declined invitations to substitute its redistricting preferences for those of the people’s elected representatives.”

Kansas courts previously had not been asked to consider whether the state constitution bars political gerrymandering. Federal judges — not the Kansas courts — have typically reviewed the state’s congressional boundaries, but the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2019 that complaints about partisan gerrymandering are political issues and not for the federal courts to resolve.

Stegall is widely seen as the seven-member court’s most conservative justice, having been appointed by conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014. But he was joined in the majority by a justice appointed by a moderate Republican governor and two who were appointed by Democrats. All of the dissenters were appointed by Democratic governors.

The majority also rejected critics’ claims that the new congressional map represented racial gerrymandering because it split the Black and Hispanic populations in the Kansas City areas between two districts. Stegall wrote that the aggrieved voters did not show that race was the predominant factor in how the lines were drawn.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, which represented 11 voters, said in a statement that the decision was especially harmful to minority voters who were “targeted and silenced.”

Democrats accused Republicans of planning to hurt Davids politically. Although Republicans said that was not the case, a now-retired state Senate leader said publicly in 2020 that fellow Republicans could draw all four congressional districts to favor the GOP and “guarantee” a plan that “takes out” Davids.

Republican lawmakers noted repeatedly that the Kansas side of the Kansas City area has too many people to fit into a single congressional district, requiring some sort of split. And they argued that Davids still would win her new district based on 2020 election results.

The new congressional map moved the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, out of the 3rd District represented by Davids and into the larger 2nd District of eastern Kansas represented by Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner. Kansas City, Kansas, is among the state’s few Democratic strongholds.

The map also moved the liberal city of Lawrence — a Democratic stronghold only about 40 miles west (64 kilometers) of Kansas City and home to the main University of Kansas campus –out of the 2nd District. Instead, the city of 95,000 has been added to the already sprawling 1st District, which is dominated by small conservative communities in central and western Kansas.

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Top court: Kansas Constitution allows partisan redistricting