JEFFERSON CITY — Just weeks before candidates can begin filing for office, the Missouri Supreme Court is considering whether new congressional boundaries were gerrymandered for the political benefit of incumbents or Republicans.
The court is to hear arguments Thursday over two lawsuits contending the new congressional districts are not compact and serve partisan ends. The seven-member high court will also hear arguments Thursday on a separate lawsuit challenging the new boundaries drawn for the state Senate.
A quick ruling is expected, because candidates can begin filing for this year's elections on Feb. 28.
Congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn each decade based on the most recent census. Missouri is dropping from nine congressional districts to eight because its population growth since 2000 did not keep pace with other states. The number of state Legislature districts is not changing, but the boundaries had to be adjusted to account for population shifts, such as growth in southwestern Missouri and outer St. Louis suburbs and declines in St. Louis County and city.
Responsibility for congressional redistricting landed with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which enacted its map after overriding the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. State Legislature districts were developed by a panel of six appeals court judges after state commissions with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats deadlocked.
The two lawsuits over Missouri's congressional districts contend the new map runs afoul of equal protection rights by diluting the voting power of some residents.
One lawsuit, filed by Kansas City area attorney Jamie Barker Landes, focuses largely on the 5th Congressional District in the Kansas City-area that currently is held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. The lawsuit complains a swath of Jackson County was removed and tacked onto the rural 6th Congressional District of Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves that stretches across the northern half of the state from Nebraska to Illinois. Three largely rural counties in west-central Missouri were added to Cleaver's district.
In court documents, Landes describes the map as a "bipartisan gerrymander" that combines unrelated communities to protect incumbents and preserve the status quo.
A second lawsuit to the new congressional districts asserts the map reflects "extreme partisan gerrymandering" and will allow Republicans to elect three-quarters of Missouri's congressional delegation. It also asserts the new districts infringe on voting rights and violates a provision in the Missouri Constitution that calls for promoting the "general welfare of the people." That lawsuit is funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust.
The lawsuit says central Missouri counties were not kept together, raises a similar argument about the Kansas City region, complains that Jefferson County in the St. Louis-area was spread among three districts and asserts the St. Louis region would be underrepresented. Missouri's new map essentially eliminated the congressional district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, of St. Louis.
"The redistricting map adopted here represents nothing other than a brazen exercise of bare-knuckled political power, by which the majority in the General Assembly rode roughshod over the constitutional rights of countless Missouri voters who may not share their political persuasion, and tilted the electoral playing field significantly in the majority party's favor — a tilt which, absent judicial intervention, will remain in effect for ten years," attorney Gerry Greiman said in a written argument.
Last month, Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green rejected both challenges. The decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The Missouri attorney general's office is responsible for defending the state when it is sued. Solicitor General James Layton said in written arguments to the high court that the new congressional districts largely are rectangular — with some areas carved out — and seek to keep counties together. Layton, who had acknowledged to the trial court that the Kansas City-area district could be "problematic," said it should not be sufficient to bring down all the districts.
"If the legislature really had 'wholly ignored' compactness, the districts would certainly look quite different than they do," Layton said. He noted courts have stayed out of redistricting unless the Legislature "wholly ignores" the constitutional requirement to keep districts compact.
Republicans state Sen. Scott Rupp and Rep. John Diehl were the chairmen of the state House and Senate redistricting committees and joined both lawsuits as defendants. An attorney representing the lawmakers said compactness was not "wholly ignored" and argued that there is no constitutional right for political groups to hold a proportionate number of congressional seats.
The legal challenge over the state Senate districts raises objections to the map and the procedure the judicial commission followed. The Appellate Apportionment Commission filed its original map Nov. 30, but submitted a revised map Dec. 9. A key point has been a Missouri Constitution provision that says Senate district lines shall not cross a county except when necessary to add people to a nearby district because the neighboring county has too many people to fit into a single Senate district.
The lawsuit asserts that the first Senate map had problems with how Jackson, Greene and St. Louis counties were carved up. It also contends the commission was not authorized to submit its second map, which nonetheless has a similar problem for St. Louis County. The suit also argues that voters in the 8th District, which covers eastern Jackson County and western Lafayette County, would have no senator to represent them until after the 2014 election. Meanwhile, the neighboring 10th District would have two senators living in it during that time.