Kansas Supreme Court rejects AG’s request to dismiss redistricting lawsuits in state courts

By: - March 4, 2022 11:24 am

Connie Brown Collins, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident, holds her notes during a news conference to condemn the GOP-drawn congressional map on Jan. 24, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday rejected Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s request to dismiss lawsuits filed in Wyandotte and Douglas counties over redrawn congressional districts.

The lawsuits argue that a map endorsed by the GOP supermajority in the Legislature is gerrymandered and violates protections in the state constitution. Schmidt argued that state courts should have no say in evaluating federal boundaries.

In a decision written by Justice Caleb Stegall, the high court said it was improper for Schmidt to attempt to short-circuit the judicial process. Everyone involved with the litigation should instead work with district courts “to expeditiously resolve the legal questions and to present a timely appeal.”

“We had hoped to resolve the unsettled constitutional questions in these unprecedented cases more quickly and efficiently by presenting them directly to the Kansas Supreme Court,” Schmidt said. “But today’s decision requires we resolve them the slower and potentially far more expensive way by starting in the trial courts, so that is what we will do.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Loud Light filed separate lawsuits in Wyandotte County asking the court to invalidate the new congressional map and force lawmakers to draw a new one, or for the court to draw new boundaries if lawmakers fail to provide an adequate map. Democrats filed a similar lawsuit in Douglas County.

“We are eager to get the case moving in Wyandotte County District Court so that we can show just how blatant of a partisan and racial gerrymander this map is, and how it tramples on the state constitutional rights of our clients,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “We look forward to putting on our evidence and demonstrating our case.”

Lawmakers are tasked with redrawing congressional and state districts based on census results every 10 years. The Legislature fast-tracked the congressional map early in the session, and upheld the map after Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed it.

Known as Ad Astra 2, the map divides the Kansas City metro area between two districts in an obvious attempt to make it more difficult for the state’s only Democrat in the congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, to get reelected. Her 3rd District seat now combines Johnson County with Republican strongholds from Anderson, Miami and Franklin.

The area of Wyandotte County north of Interstate 70, a majority minority community, was moved into the 2nd District. Republicans offset the infusion of Democrats into the 2nd District by carving Lawrence out of Douglas County and placing it in the heavily Republican and largely rural 1st District that stretches to the Colorado border.

In past years, redistricting lawsuits were filed exclusively in federal court. But the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 closed the door on those challenges by declaring partisan gerrymandering claims are off-limits for federal courts.

This year’s lawsuits argue the Ad Astra 2 map violates protections in the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights because it unfairly targets Democrats and minorities. The novel legal approach asks judges to find those protections against gerrymandering in language that says all political power is inherent in the people, and the power of government is for the people’s equal protection and benefit.

Schmidt asked the Kansas Supreme Court to intervene and dismiss the lawsuits because “the Kansas Constitution has nothing at all to say about political gerrymandering.”

In his ruling Friday, Stegall said the district courts are equipped to consider those arguments, which can then be appealed.

“The validity of a legislatively enacted congressional reapportionment scheme is a matter of great public concern and statewide importance,” Stegall wrote.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.