Suit over new Missouri House districts filed in trial court

Friday, January 27, 2012 | 3:24 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Opponents of new state House districts took their legal challenge to a trial court Friday after Missouri's Supreme Court refused to hear their case directly.

The filing in Cole County, the home county of the state capital of Jefferson City, was expected after the high court's ruling Thursday that the group's effort to strike down the new House district map would need to start in the lower court.

A group of more than a dozen people contend the new state House map violates requirements that districts have similar populations and be contiguous and compact. They argue there is far too much variance among the district sizes, and some are even divided by rivers.

In addition, the legal challenge adds a new claim that the special judicial commission responsible for developing the 163-district state House map violated Missouri's open meetings law by not providing notice of meetings and then holding at least three private discussions. A panel of six appeals court judges developed new districts after a bipartisan commission deadlocked this past summer.

The judicial commission accepted public testimony for one day in October and then met and deliberated in secret before releasing a new map Nov. 30. The panel has said it did not believe it was required to follow the requirements for posting notices of its meetings and conducting most discussions in public sessions.

Missouri's open meetings law, frequently called the Sunshine Law, requires advanced public notice of meetings. Most discussions must be held in sessions open to the public, and when closed meetings are allowed, governmental bodies must vote to do so and keep minutes from the executive session.

The case could move ahead soon. The Supreme Court in its order instructed the circuit court to decide quickly on whether the new House districts are constitutional. Missouri candidates start filing Feb. 28 for this year's elections, and if the map is rejected, the redistricting process may start from scratch.

The Missouri attorney general's office has defended the map, saying it meets the requirements in the state Constitution.

New boundaries for the Missouri General Assembly were developed based on population changes from the 2010 census. Congressional districts also were redrawn reducing the state's seats from nine to eight because Missouri's population growth over the past decade did not keep pace with the rest of the nation.

The Missouri 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 the congressional map.

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