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UPDATE: Missouri Supreme Court examines congressional district dispute

Thursday, February 16, 2012 | 8:19 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court took a second look at the state's redrawn congressional map on Thursday, paying particular attention to a "tear drop" carved out of a Kansas City-area district that opponents argue violates a constitutional requirement that the districts be compact.

The high court is considering arguments from two legal challenges to districts in the U.S. House map redrawn after the 2010 census. The Missouri Constitution requires congressional districts be "composed of contiguous territory as compact and as nearly equal in population as may be."

This is the second time in as many months the Supreme Court has examined congressional redistricting. During arguments Thursday, judges examined the 5th District that covers much of Jackson County plus several neighboring rural counties. A portion of Jackson County — likened to a tear drop — was sliced off and added to the 6th District that stretches across northern Missouri from Nebraska to Illinois.

Judge William Ray Price asked how to explain the districts around Kansas City.

"What specific evidence went to the tear drop in the 5th District as to whether or not that tear drop was necessary or appropriate for a district that would be as compact as may be?" Price said.

Congressional districts are redrawn each decade based on the 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 Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

One lawsuit, funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, objects to the Kansas City-area districts and the 3rd District stretching from central Missouri to the St. Louis-area with two arms reaching to the Mississippi River north and south of St. Louis. It also challenges the west-central 4th District and southwestern Missouri's 7th District. The other legal challenge focuses on the Kansas City region.

At issue before the Supreme Court was what is required for Missouri's congressional districts to meet the state Constitution's requirement that districts be as compact "as may be."

Gerry Greiman, the attorney for the Democrats lawsuit, said districts should be as compact as possible under the circumstances, which would allow for consideration of issues such as equal population and holding counties together. He said congressional districts must be required to be sufficiently compact to forestall gerrymandering.

The other lawsuit adopts a similar concept with different phrasing, said attorney Jamie Barker Landes. She said a reasonable person must find districts are reasonably compact under the circumstances.

Phrased either way, the lawsuits contend Missouri's map falls short.

"Do what our eyes clearly tell us is the case and we must do, and find the ... map clearly is not as compact as may be," Greiman said.

Defending Missouri's new congressional map was Missouri Solicitor General James Layton and Eddie Greim, a private attorney who represented the chairmen of the state House and Senate redistricting committees. Greim said compactness falls along a spectrum and that districts should be required to be much closer to perfectly  compact than not-compact while still allowing room for the legislature to make decisions about where to draw boundaries. He noted that past maps have cut parts of Jackson County and that courts have judged more sprawling districts compact than those in the redrawn U.S. House map.

Three members of the seven-judge Supreme Court — Chief Justice Richard Teitelman and Judges Mary Russell and George W. Draper III — recused themselves. Judges Gary Lynch, Joe Ellis and Karen King Mitchell sat in their place for the case. The rest of the Supreme Court judges were present: Price, Patricia Breckenridge, Laura Denvir Stith and Zel Fischer.

Legal battles over Missouri's redistricting process have continued this winter in several courtrooms. The Supreme Court examined both congressional redistricting lawsuits in January and ordered a trial court conduct further legal review while noting questions could be raised about the compactness of several districts, particularly the 5th and the 3rd. Earlier this month, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green upheld the map after a three-day hearing.

In addition, another lawsuit challenges new districts for the 163-member Missouri House. The Missouri Supreme Court already has tossed out new districts for the 34-member state Senate.

Layton said the Supreme Court's decision on the standard for compact "as may be" likely will affect how multiple legislative districts are drawn.

A bipartisan commission now responsible for drawing new state Senate districts is to meet Saturday morning at the state Capitol. The panel could hold additional meetings Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. There is a rush to draw new districts because candidates currently start filing for next year's elections on Feb. 28.

Senators attempted to create additional breathing room on Thursday by approving legislation that would delay the start of candidate filing until March 27. The measure passed the Senate 34-0 and now moves to the House.


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