Missouri Supreme Court examines lawsuit over House map

Monday, February 27, 2012 | 9:40 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Population requirements for new Missouri House districts drew attention Monday during the most recent round of legal fighting over the state's redistricting process.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments over a lawsuit that contends the new map for the 163-district Missouri House violates requirements for districts to have similar populations and be contiguous and compact. The suit also argues that a special commission of six appellate judges responsible for drawing the map violated Missouri's open meetings law by not providing notice of meetings and then holding at least three private discussions.

It is the most recent case to come before the Supreme Court related to Missouri's redistricting process. The high court in January ordered further legal review of congressional districts and rejected new state Senate districts. The court also heard a second round of arguments earlier this month in two congressional redistricting cases and has not yet ruled.

Congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn based upon population changes from the 2010 census.

Arguments Monday focused on new Missouri House districts that were developed by a panel of six appeals court judges after a bipartisan commission deadlocked this past summer. The Missouri Constitution calls for dividing the state's population by the 163 available seats and drawing each district so 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."

Attorney Paul Wilson, who is representing a bipartisan group that includes two former state lawmakers in the legal challenge, said the requirements were violated. Wilson said the state constitution sets a standard for population equality "that is as close as possible to perfection" and that it should be the top priority in redrawing districts.

When asked what degree of population differences should be allowed, Wilson did not offer a specific number. He said it should be less than what is in the current map and established by the courts over time.

"You can't make a rule from one data point," he said. "You've got to plot several data points before you can articulate a rule."

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. That means the standard deviation is 7.8 percent.

The House redistricting plan was defended by the Missouri attorney general's office and by a private attorney representing several current Republican House members who intervened in the case.

State Solicitor General James Layton said in his written argument submitted to the Supreme Court that federal courts have accepted state legislative districts with population differences of less than 10 percent so long as there is not proof of intentional discrimination. Layton said during arguments Monday the high court should consider what additional factors besides equal population, compactness and contiguity can be considered in setting new legislative boundaries.

Robert Hess, an attorney representing the lawmakers, said those challenging the new House map did not prove their case because they did not show alternatives that complied with state and federal requirements. Hess said alternative maps did not show evidence of compliance with voting protections for minorities.

"You can't just move those lines around without knowing who lives there," Hess told the Supreme Court.

The case attracted particular attention with arguments running longer than is typical for the Supreme Court. Watching from a largely full public gallery was Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and former Democratic lawmaker Joan Bray, who is among the plaintiffs challenging the House districts.

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