JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court struck down new state Senate districts Tuesday and ordered further legal review of new congressional boundaries, throwing uncertainty into Missouri's 2012 election season just weeks before candidates are to begin filing for office.
The state's high court ordered a trial judge to conduct a hearing and make a judgment by Feb. 3 on claims that the new congressional districts violate the state constitution because they were not drawn compactly. The seven-member Supreme Court said it was not prejudging whether the districts are compact.
The Supreme Court also invalidated new state Senate districts, ruling that a plan submitted by a special panel of appellate judges violated the state constitution by dividing Jackson and Greene counties into too many districts. The court also ruled the judicial panel exceeded its authority when it attempted to replace the first map it filed with a new one that included fewer county divisions less than two weeks later.
The result of Tuesday's ruling is that the state Senate redistricting process must start all over, with Gov. Jay Nixon appointing a new 10-member bipartisan citizens' commission to attempt to draw boundaries. Seven of the 10 commission members must agree on a new map for it to be approved. If they fail to do so, the responsibility again would fall to a panel of judges.
It was not immediately clear whether the Senate redistricting process could be completed in time for the Feb. 28 start of candidacy filing. It's also unclear whether the congressional boundaries could be redrawn — if that ultimately is required — before candidacy filing begins. However, House Speaker Steven Tilley said Tuesday that lawmakers could delay when candidate filing starts.
Congressional 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 Republican-controlled legislature enacted its congressional redistricting map last year after overriding a veto by Nixon. The state Senate remains at 34 seats, but the boundaries are adjusted to account for population shifts.
David Brown, an attorney who challenged the new Senate maps, said he hoped the tight time frame could help to spur compromise. He suggested that naming the same people to the citizens' commission could save time because they are familiar with the issues.
"They're effectively batting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth this time," Brown said. "Last time, they weren't in that position. The last time they knew that if they weren't able to draw the map, there would be another commission appointed to draw the map."
Separate legal challenges attacked the new congressional districts. They argued the districts are not compact and violate equal protection rights by diluting some residents' voting power. The lawsuits asserted the new congressional boundaries were gerrymandered to help incumbents or Republicans.
The Supreme Court noted in its ruling that questions can be raised about the compactness of several new districts, particularly the 5th Congressional District in the Kansas City-area and the 3rd Congressional District that stretches from central Missouri into the St. Louis suburbs. The high court concluded more consideration of compactness is required, but upheld a Cole County judge's earlier decision to reject the equal protection arguments against the districts.
Much of the discussion before the Supreme Court last week focused on the 5th District that covers much of Jackson County and parts of several neighboring rural counties. A chunk of Jackson County was sliced out and added to a neighboring district.
Gerry Greiman, an attorney representing the legal challenge funded by the National Democratic Trust, said there are problems with the 3rd, 4th and 5th districts. His lawsuit also complains Jefferson County near St. Louis is spread among three districts and argues the St. Louis region is left underrepresented. The new congressional map essentially eliminates the district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, of St. Louis.
Greiman said he was pleased with the ruling, noting he believes compactness involves the shape of district and whether communities of interest and political subdivisions are kept together.
"It upholds our theory and argument concerning the non-compactness of the districts," he said.
Another congressional redistricting lawsuit focused primarily on the 5th District. Attorney Jamie Barker Landes said it looked similar to a "jagged line" that is not compact and that it seemed the new districts seemed designed to protect incumbents.
The U.S. House districts were defended by the Missouri attorney general's office and a private attorney who represented the chairmen of the House and Senate redistricting committees. They argued the courts should evaluate whether compactness was considered by the legislature and asserted that map would have looked significantly different if that concern was ignored.
The attorney general's office, which also defended the state Senate districts, said it was reviewing the decisions and declined further comment.
Tilley, R-Perryville, said he remains confident the new congressional districts will be upheld. Tilley said the districts are "contiguous and compact" and were drawn to the legislature's best ability. On the other hand, he said the judiciary's handling of redistricting for the state legislature was "an embarrassment."
"It's been a debacle on the judicial side for redistricting," he said.