JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state's new congressional districts Friday, finally providing certainty for candidates who have been campaigning for the August primary elections without knowing whether certain counties, cities or neighborhoods ultimately would be in their districts.
A divided high court ruled Friday that Missouri's eight new U.S. House districts comply with a constitutional requirement to be "as compact ... as may be." The ruling solidifies the district boundaries enacted last year when the Republican-led legislature — with the help of a few Democrats — overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
Although some Supreme Court judges dissented, a majority determined that the Missouri Constitution "does not require absolute precision in compactness." The Supreme Court ultimately deferred to a February decision by Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green, declaring that it was not going to substitute its own judgment for the trial court's when it came to disputed factual issues about the boundaries.
Missouri lawmakers had to redraw the state's nine current congressional districts into eight new districts after the 2010 census, because Missouri's population growth lagged behind that of some other states. The new congressional district map also had to account for population shifts within the state, such as a continued exodus of residents from St. Louis to its outer suburbs.
The new map has set up a Democratic primary battle in the St. Louis area between U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan.
Two separate lawsuits challenged the new map. One focused largely on the Kansas City area, where the 5th District was extended from Jackson County to also cover rural Lafayette, Ray and Saline counties — forming a shape that some said resembled a "dead lizard." A teardrop chunk of Jackson County, meanwhile, was carved out and added to the 6th District, which stretches across northern Missouri from Nebraska to Illinois.
In addition to the Kansas City area, the other lawsuit targeted the new 3rd District, which runs from central Missouri eastward with arms touching the Mississippi River both north and south of St. Louis. Some called that district "the lobster claw."
All seven judges agreed that the 3rd District met constitutional standards. They said the lobster-claw shape was a ripple effect of crafting a 1st District in St. Louis that complied with the federal Voting Rights Act by concentrating a large number of racial minority residents within the district.
But the court was divided over the Kansas City area districts.
The majority opinion upholding the districts bore no author's name but was backed by Supreme Court judges Patricia Breckenridge and Zel Fischer and appeals court judges Gary Lynch and Karen King Mitchell, who heard the case in place of recused Supreme Court judges Richard Teitelman and George Draper III.
Their ruling said the requirement that a district be compact "does not refer solely to physical shape or size" and thus cannot be decided by just looking at the boundaries. They said the modifying phrase to be "as compact ... as may be" allows for "minimal and practical deviations" that result from other factors.
Among those other factors influencing compactness are constitutional requirements that districts have nearly equal populations and contiguous areas and comply with federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act. The majority opinion also said population densities, natural boundary lines, city boundaries and the dividing lines used for previous congressional district maps also can be factors when weighing whether a district is appropriately compact.
Ultimately, the majority coalition acknowledged there was a legitimate factual dispute about whether the 5th and 6th districts were as compact as could be. But "this court will not substitute its judgment for that of the trial court by re-evaluating the credibility of that evidence in this case," the majority opinion said.
Judge William Ray Price Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion backed by Judge Laura Denvir Stith and appeals court Judge Joseph Ellis, who heard the case in the place of recused Supreme Court Judge Mary Russell. Price wrote that by allowing other non-constitutional factors to be considered alongside the compactness requirement, the majority opinion essentially undercut the requirement and effectively insulated any map from an objective legal challenge.
He noted that the "teardrop-shaped oddity" protruding from the 6th District essentially moved 79,818 residents out of what otherwise would have been the 5th District and replaced them with 80,245 residents in three rural counties who otherwise could have been in the 6th District.
"Abstract discussion of law cannot mask the obvious fact that the legislature has attempted to gerrymander a teardrop-shaped portion of Jackson County from district 5 and place it in district 6," Price wrote.