WASHINGTON – A Kansas state court on Monday tossed out a newly drawn map of congressional districts as an unconstitutional gerrymander, the latest in a series of similar rulings across the country.
The 29th Judicial District Court said Republicans in the state legislature had created “intentional and effective” party-political and racial gerrymanders when they divided the state’s major democratic strongholds among Republican-oriented housing districts.
Most notably, the Republican plan divided Kansas City along both racial and partisan lines and would have threatened the only one of the state’s four house seats that a Democrat had.
District Judge Bill Klapper prevented the Legislature from holding elections according to plan and ordered lawmakers to draw new cards that followed his decision “as soon as possible.”
“Most Kansans would be shocked to know how the competition for ‘seat seats’ has been artificially developed to give a segment of the political apparatus an unfair and undeserved advantage,” he wrote in a stinging 235-page ruling.
The ruling goes directly to the State Supreme Court for review. Four of the seven judges of this court have been appointed by Democratic governors, suggesting a reasonable prospect that it will be ratified.
Republican leaders in the State House said in a statement that they expected the state’s attorney to appeal the ruling. They called Judge Klapper a party-political Democrat and said he had sided with Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, “to rob himself of legally adopted cards approved by a majority of the people’s representatives.”
What you need to know about redistribution
Kelly had vetoed the congressional card after Republican majorities in the State House and state Senate approved it in late January. The legislature overruled the veto, and the Kansas ACLU and Campaign Legal Center sued the Kansas City District Court for blocking the card.
The Republican map was “a cynical and shameful attempt to dilute the voting power of Kansas’ black, Latino and Democratic voters,” said Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the Washington firm Arnold & Porter, who represented 11 Kansas voters, each for sued the Legislative Assembly.
Republicans in other states have made unfavorable gerrymandering decisions to the federal courts, which have been shown to be sympathetic to the party’s redistribution efforts in recent months. It was not immediately clear whether the Republicans in the Kansas Legislature would take that path.
The Kansas ruling follows a barrage of state court rulings cracking down on partisan gerrymanders of congressional cards, largely in response to a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prevented federal courts from dealing with the issue.
This year alone, state courts have invalidated house cards in North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio and New York. In addition, the state supreme courts of Virginia and Pennsylvania passed balanced house cards after redistribution efforts stalled in those states.
However, the final impact on the political balance in the closely divided House of Representatives is still unknown. State courts reinstated Republican skewed cards in Wisconsin and Ohio after federal courts intervened, and challenges in state courts to the Democratic gerrymander in New York and a new Republican gerrymander in Florida have yet to be resolved.
The Kansas decision was the first in the state to reject a political card on party political grounds. Should it be ratified, it would in all likelihood maintain the existing party-political balance in the state House of Representatives, which consists of three Republicans and one Democrat.
The Legislative Assembly card would have threatened the re-election prospects of the only Democrat, Representative Sharice Davids, whose district includes the western half of Kansas City.
This is how American redistricting works
What is redistribution? It is the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years after the census to reflect changes in the population.
Judge Klapper became lyrical in the first pages of his judgment, quoting a hymn about the moral strength of the inhabitants of the “flat plains of Kansas” and pondering the importance of democracy. But the majority of his opinion claimed that the cards violated not only the voting rights of minorities, but also freedom of speech, equal protection and voting rights clauses in the Kansas Constitution and the State Bill of Rights.
He leaned heavily on appalling decisions in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which have largely similar provisions in their constitutions, to argue that such rights extend beyond those guaranteed by the federal constitution.
Referring to computer simulations of 1,000 possible congressional cards used as evidence in the trial, the judge said the GOP districts were “extremely party-political outliers” who broke state mandates to draw compact districts that did not share counties more than any of the the simulations.
Measured relative to the actual vote in previous elections, he wrote, the seat most favorable to Democrats – the third congressional district owned by Representative David – was “heavier Republican than 99.6 percent of the least Republican districts (ie. . democratic districts) in the 1,000 computer-simulated plans. “
The map achieved this in part by dividing Kansas City by racial and political lines, and moving 45,000 black and Latino voters out of Ms. Davids’ district to the adjacent Second Congressional District.
“District lines are carefully tailored to split the heart of the Kansas City subway – and with it nearly a century-long tradition – along its densest minority neighborhoods,” the judge wrote.
Black and Latino voters in Kansas City have been strong supporters of Ms. Davids, one of two Native American women elected to Congress for the first time in 2018.