JEFFERSON CITY — A legal challenge against new Missouri House districts contends that more than a century after Lewis and Clark used their keelboat to tame the Missouri River, it remains too great of a geographic boundary for a state lawmaker to represent people on both shores.
Four districts in the new map for the 163-member House contain territory on both sides of the Missouri River, and two other districts in the St. Louis-area are split by the Meramec River. None have a bridge within the district linking each bank. That means people would have to travel through other legislative districts if they wish to cross the rivers without a boat or getting wet.
The argument against the new districts is a new twist in a series of court cases over Missouri redistricting efforts for Congress, the state Senate and the state House. Already this month, the Missouri Supreme Court has struck down new state Senate districts and ordered a trial court to conduct additional legal review in two separate lawsuits over new congressional districts.
Congressional and state legislative 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 number of state Legislature districts is not changing, but the boundaries had to be adjusted to account for population shifts, such as growth in southwestern Missouri and outer St. Louis suburbs and declines in St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis.
The latest lawsuit over the redistricting process is aimed at new state House districts and was filed this past week by a bipartisan mix of more than a dozen people. They want the courts to block the new House map from being used for this year's elections. Among other things, they argue that bridgeless river crossings violate a state constitutional requirement that districts be contiguous.
The challengers contend Missouri residents intended for legislative districts to be contiguous in a practical manner that allows travelers to move throughout a district without passing through others.
However, in House District 50 in central Missouri, a motorist could need to pass through four other districts to travel from a portion in Columbia to another section south of the Missouri River in California, Mo. Opponents of the map contend that kind of trek makes the map unconstitutional.
"If a district has one portion which is separated from the remainder by a river, that district must also contain a bridge connecting those portions so that, as a practical matter, residents can travel throughout their district without having to leave the district," their lawsuit said.
The attorney general's office, which is responsible for defending the new House districts, said the river argument was novel and noted that Missouri's rivers have long been a transportation advantage. Solicitor General James Layton said in a written argument that rivers should not now become barriers that legislative districts may not cross.
"What in the Missouri Constitution suggests that the Department of Transportation and county highway departments can redefine contiguity by erecting or destroying bridges?" Layton said.
The attorney general's office pointed to cases elsewhere that did not consider bodies of water much of an impediment. A court in 2007 accepted a city ward boundary in Washington D.C. that crossed the Anacostia River. A federal court in Tennessee ruled in 1980 that the Tennessee River did not break up the continuity of a district. That court said: "We believe that a district lacks continuity only when a part is isolated from the rest by the territory of another district."
Even before Missouri courts began considering whether state House districts must follow the state's bridges and transportation network, a chaotic redistricting process is threatening to cause confusion in this year's elections. Political candidates were scheduled to start filing Feb. 28, but that most likely will be delayed because legislative districts will not yet be in place. It's still unclear how much additional time is needed.
A Cole County judge is expected to start a three-day hearing over the new congressional districts on Tuesday. The Supreme Court has set a Friday deadline for a ruling, and the case ultimately could wind up back before the state high court. State lawmakers are responsible for developing U.S. House maps, just like other types of legislation.
Redistricting for the state Senate must start from scratch. The Democratic and Republican parties each submit candidates for Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint a bipartisan 10-person commission. The new commission does not yet exist, and its first meeting will be held about two weeks after it is created. After that, the bipartisan redistricting commission must hold public hearings and allow time for public comment on any map it proposes. A new map must get seven votes.
If that commission does not reach agreement, a panel of six appeals court judges would be responsible for developing the districts.
A similar process would be triggered if Missouri's courts decide a politician should not be required to swim rivers or head to a bridge that is outside his or her district.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached on Twitter at @ChrisBlank2.