Kansas Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Wilson asks a question during oral arguments regarding constitutionality of redistricting maps created by the 2022 Kansas Legislature. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling Wednesday declaring the congressional redistricting map approved by the Republican-led Legislature to be in compliance with the Kansas Constitution.
The justices conducted oral argument Monday on an appeal by Attorney General Derek Schmidt of a Wyandotte County District Court judge’s April opinion the map transferring liberal-leaning Lawrence from the 2nd District to the 1st District and splitting the Democratic stronghold of Wyandotte County between the 2nd and 3rd districts was unconstitutional.
Justice Caleb Stegall, in a two-page ruling, said the majority of the state’s highest court held Senate Bill 355 didn’t violate the state constitution.
“Therefore, the judgment of the district court is reversed and the permanent injunction ordered by the district court is lifted,” Stegall said in the order.
Stegall, an appointee of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, also said a “full opinion describing the facts, rationale and holdings of the court is forthcoming, along with all dissenting or concurring opinions of members of the court.”
The state Supreme Court acted in the consolidated case filed by a collection of plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits challenging the congressional map’s constitutionality on grounds lawmakers engaged in partisan gerrymandering and intentionally weakened the influence of minority voters.
The defendants were Secretary of State Scott Schwab and the top election officials in Wyandotte and Douglas counties.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said he welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the redistricting map for congressional seats in Kansas and, in a separate opinion, the state legislative maps for the House and Senate. He said the maps were the result of a “fair, open and thorough process based on public input and grounded in constitutional principles.”
The Supreme Court recognized the importance of separation of powers relevant to the mapping and that the Legislature followed a deliberative process before producing maps “fair for all and are consistent with the historically recognized redistricting guidelines,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.
Lenexa Sen. Dinah Sykes, who serves as the Senate’s Democratic leader, said the Supreme Court’s decision was disappointing, but she respected the court’s position in the unprecedented case. This was the first time a Kansas district court judge found a congressional redistricting map to violate the constitution.
“But make no mistake: This process did not serve the Kansans we are elected to represent. Kansas Republicans disrespected, ignored and gaslit engaged voters from the very start,” Sykes said. “While that isn’t unconstitutional, it is unacceptable. Kansans should continue to hold legislative leadership to task for their consistent refusal to accept that, despite their best efforts, our residents are not a monolith and have a different vision for our state from the GOP’s.”
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the Supreme Court’s decision on the congressional maps would set the state for more egregious political gerrymandering. He also said the voice of voters of Lawrence and Wyandotte County would be “silenced by this decision.”
He recommended the Legislature place on statewide ballots a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would prohibit gerrymandering in Kansas.
The Legislature recast the state’s four congressional districts based on results of the 2020 U.S. Census. The map is redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in population.
One objective of Republicans in the Legislature was to undermine reelection prospects of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat in the 3rd District of Johnson and Wyandotte counties. The new map would take remove voters in the Democrat stronghold of Wyandotte County north of Interstate 70 into the 2nd District.
The primary beneficiary of the reconfiguration could be Amanda Adkins, the likely Republican Party’s nominee in the 3rd District. She lost to Davids two years ago, but formation of a district comprised of southern Wyandotte County and all of Johnson, Franklin, Anderson and Miami counties could shorten her political hurdle.
“The map released today is evidence that our democratic process works,” Adkins said. “The new KS-03 just might be the most competitive seat in the country.”
Addition of liberal-leaning voters to the 1st and 2nd districts were calculated to be insufficient to threaten reelection campaigns of U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann and U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, both Republicans.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the congressional map, but two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate voted to override her veto.
Kansas solicitor general Brant Laue argued federal court was the appropriate jurisdiction for challenges of the state’s proposed U.S. House map. He said the Legislature did nothing contrary to the Kansas Constitution in deciding how to recast districts served by three Republicans and one Democrat.
Sharon Brett, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said the decision of the Supreme Court was a bitter pill for plaintiffs who believed the congressional map represented partisan gerrymandering and intentionally diluted voting power of racial minorities.
“We’re obviously very disappointed for our clients,” Brett said. “This will have ripple effects for elections for years to come and tells entire categories of voters in the state that their rights under our state constitution are meaningless.”
Due to the legal wrangling over state congressional and legislative maps, the secretary of state’s office said the deadline for candidates to file for those offices was moved back to June 10.
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