JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday declined to strike down new state legislative districts, and suggested opponents of new state House districts take up their fight before a trial judge.
Missouri's high court declined the request to block a new map for the 163-member state House but permitted a legal challenge to be filed in circuit court. An attorney representing more than a dozen people who challenged the new House districts said the suit could be filed soon.
The state Supreme Court this month rejected new districts for the 34-member state Senate and ordered further legal review by a trial court in two separate lawsuits challenging a new U.S. House map that reconfigures the state into eight districts instead of the current nine.
The most recent legal challenge requests the new state House map to be blocked from use in this year's elections because it violates requirements that districts have similar populations and be contiguous and compact. The state Supreme Court said the case "involves disputed issues of fact" that a circuit court judge should quickly decide — if challengers refile their case.
Missouri candidates start filing Feb. 28 for this year's elections. If the new House boundaries are rejected, the redistricting process may start from scratch.
The Missouri attorney general's office, which is responsible for defending the state against lawsuits, had said in written arguments to the state Supreme Court that the issue of whether the new state House districts are compact requires a factual analysis. It also had urged the state Supreme Court to reject the other complaints.
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 says each district should be "composed of contiguous territory as compact as may be." The ideal population for each state House district is 36,742, and the new map 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 before the state Supreme Court, opponents of the new map said one-quarter of the districts depart from the ideal population by at least 3 percent or 1,100 people. In addition, the lawsuit argued that a half-dozen new House districts are not contiguous because they span a river where there are no bridges.
The attorney general's office said other redistricting plans with a larger population difference among districts have been upheld and that a successful challenge could require largely identical populations for the 163 districts. The attorney general's office also said there is nothing to suggest that a body of water cutting through a legislative district makes it noncontiguous.
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.