JEFFERSON CITY — A new legal challenge filed Monday over Missouri's redistricting process — this time over new maps for the state House — could throw more uncertainty into the 2012 election season just weeks before candidates begin filing for office.
The most recent lawsuit contends that a new map for the 163-member Missouri House violates requirements that districts have similar populations and be contiguous and compact. The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to block the new state House districts from being used for this year's elections.
Already this month, the state's high court struck down new Senate districts and ordered further legal review of a new U.S. House map, which a trial court was to complete by Feb. 3. The Missouri Supreme Court ordered the redistricting process for the 34-member state Senate to start over. If the court strikes down the state House maps, that redistricting process also could have to start from scratch.
Missouri candidates can start filing for office Feb. 28.
Challenging the new House districts is a group of more than a dozen people, including former Republican and Democratic state lawmakers. Among the plaintiffs are eight Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent. Former lawmakers, Republican Bob Johnson and Democrat Joan Bray, said the success in this year's earlier redistricting challenges was a factor in their case.
"It would be real mistake not to get this before the court," Bray said.
The Missouri attorney general's office, which is responsible for defending the state against lawsuits, had no immediate comment. The Supreme Court directed the state to file a response by Wednesday.
House Speaker Steven Tilley said Monday the legal wrangling has left the state in "limbo" and new legislation was to be filed to delay the start of candidate filing for a month or two in case that became necessary. Despite some initial qualms with the new House districts, Tilley said he thought the map was likely constitutional.
"After you look at it, you know, they did the best that they could, and I'm willing to live with the results that they gave us out of the House," said Tilley, R-Perryville.
The new Missouri House districts were developed by a panel of six appeals court judges after a bipartisan commission deadlocked this past summer. Boundaries were developed based on population changes from the 2010 census. The Missouri Constitution calls for dividing the state's population by the 163 available seats and drawing each district so that the population "shall, as nearly as possible, equal that figure." It also calls for each district to be "composed of contiguous territory as compact as may be."
The ideal population for each state House district is 36,742, and the map filed by the Appellate Apportionment Commission has districts that range in population from a low of 35,303 residents in northeast Missouri's 4th District to a high of 38,170 residents in the 63rd District, which covers part of St. Charles and Warren counties.
In the legal challenge, opponents of the new map said one-quarter of the new House districts depart from the ideal population by at least 3 percent or 1,100 people. Some districts with too many people are located next to districts with too few. In addition, the lawsuit says maps suggested by members of the bipartisan redistricting commission that failed to agree had closer population margins.
Besides population differences, the legal challenge filed Monday contends a half-dozen new House districts are not contiguous because they cross rivers where there are no bridges.
For example, two central Missouri seats have territory on both sides of the Missouri River. Someone elected to the 49th District that covers southern Callaway County would need to travel through a Jefferson City district to see their entire territory. A legislator in the neighboring 50th District could need to travel through four other state legislative districts. And in the St. Louis area, the 98th District is split by the Meramec River.
The lawsuit also contends some districts in St. Louis City and Jackson and Clay counties are not sufficiently compact.
"If it is possible to draw a map with districts more nearly equal in population, the Missourians are entitled to such a map under the constitution. If it is possible to apportion the House without creating districts that span great rivers ... the constitution entitles Missourians to such a map. And if it is possible to draw districts that do not meander across the map like marble rolling across a warped linoleum floor, the constitution requires that it be done to the extent possible," the lawsuit says.
State legislative districts are redrawn each decade after the census. Missouri's population grew by about 7 percent, but the growth was not equally distributed. The southwestern corner of the state and the outer St. Louis suburbs grew, while St. Louis County and St. Louis City have each lost population since 2000.