UPDATE: Missouri high court considers redistricting challenges

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | 7:33 p.m. CST; updated 6:07 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 26, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — A new Kansas City-area congressional district described as a "dead lizard," ''tear drop," and "jagged line" was in the spotlight Thursday as the Missouri Supreme Court considered a constitutional challenge to a new U.S. House map.

Much of the discussion during oral arguments before the state high court focused on a requirement that districts be compact with significant attention on the 5th Congressional District that covers much of Jackson County and parts of several neighboring rural counties. However, a chunk of Jackson County was sliced out and added onto a neighboring U.S. House seat.

Separate legal challenges over the new map contend the districts are not compact and violate equal protection rights by diluting the voting power of some people. The lawsuits assert new congressional districts were gerrymandered to help incumbents or Republicans.

"There's not much about the 5th to like," attorney Gerry Greiman told reporters. He added the 3rd District stretching from central Missouri east into the St. Louis-area is not much better.

Greiman, whose legal challenge is funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, contends the new map will allow Republicans to elect three-quarters of Missouri's congressional delegation. It also complains Jefferson County near St. Louis was spread among three districts and argues that the St. Louis region would be left underrepresented. The new U.S. House map essentially eliminated the district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, of St. Louis.

The other congressional redistricting lawsuit contends the map amounts to a "bipartisan gerrymander" designed to protect incumbents. Attorney Jamie Barker Landes said the 5th District looks similar to a "jagged line" and is not compact.

Missouri's congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn each decade based on the most recent census. The state is dropping from nine districts to eight because population growth since 2000 has not kept pace with other states.

New districts were approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and enacted over the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green rejected the challenges last month.

Defending the new map Thursday were Missouri Solicitor General James Layton and Edward Greim, a private attorney who represented the chairmen of the state House and Senate redistricting committees. They contend the map would look significantly different if lawmakers had not considered compactness.

Greim said the Supreme Court's responsibility was to determine whether compactness appeared to be a factor that was contemplated at all by the Legislature.

"The court simply has to settle did the person who draws this map consider compactness? Was it wholly ignored or wasn't it?" Greim said. "It's an easier call to make. It's a more objective call."

Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price asked how judges would know whether compactness was considered. He said it is a constitutional requirement that cannot be ignored.

Chief Justice Richard Teitelman and Judges Mary Russell and George W. Draper III recused themselves. Judges John Parrish, Joseph Ellis and Karen King Mitchell sat for the case.

Legal wrangling over redistricting has stretched to within about six weeks of when candidates can start filing for next year's elections on Feb. 28.

The state Supreme Court also considered a separate case Thursday over new districts for the 34-member state Senate. A panel of six appellate court judges handled redistricting for the state Legislature, submitting a map on Nov. 30 and then filing a revised plan Dec. 9.

A lawsuit over the Senate districts contends the redistricting commission did not have authority to file the second map and that the first one was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily split counties among multiple districts.

Jeremiah Morgan, an assistant attorney general, said nothing expressly prohibited the redistricting commission from filing a revised Senate map if there was still time before its deadline.

All three cases are being closely watched, and they could trigger significant ramifications with time running short before the election season begins. Attorney General Chris Koster observed from the courtroom for a portion of the oral arguments, as did several lawmakers and a representative for at least one member of Congress.

Some elected officials who were not physically present nonetheless are monitoring the cases closely. Despite essentially losing his current congressional district, Carnahan has said he will run again this year and has been waiting on the outcome of the case to declare in what district he will run.

State Rep. Jerry Nolte's home sits in the northern tip of the new 5th Congressional District. He has been preparing to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who currently represents the district. A redrawn congressional map could put Nolte in the district of Republican Congressman Sam Graves, who Nolte said he will not challenge.

"I've already invested a fair amount of my time and effort into cultivating a number of contacts and people in the (new 5th) district," said Nolte, R-Gladstone. "Right now I'm all in on this race."

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