WASHINGTON — The Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the state to adopt a new map of Congress that a lower court had ruled unconstitutional, handing Republicans a victory and very likely costing the state’s Democrats their only congressional seat.
The map, enacted by the Republican-controlled state Legislature with a gubernatorial veto, divides the Kansas metropolitan city along racial and partisan lines, the lower court ruled last month, in an effort to break Democrats’ hold on the Third Congressional District. . It is the only one of the state’s four House seats held by a Democrat.
The two-page Supreme Court ruling that overturned the lower court’s decision did not explain the reasoning behind the verdict or how the seven justices voted. He said a full opinion would be issued later, but the ruling means the map’s Republican boundaries will be used in the November election. The deadline for submitting candidates is June 10.
The decision appears to run counter to a trend in other state courts, in both Democratic and Republican states, to aggressively overturn rigged political maps crafted to secure electoral gains or protect congressional seats for one party.
Lawyers for the Campaign Legal Center and the American Civil Liberties Union had argued that the Republican map in Kansas violated state Constitutional guarantees of the right to vote, equal protection, and freedom of speech and assembly.
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High courts cited similar clauses in other state constitutions this spring when cracking down on partisan gerrymanders in North Carolina, Maryland and New York, as did the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2018, when it issued the first state court ruling against a gerrymander on the grounds that it was too partisan.
The lower court ruling in the Kansas case, by a state district court judge in Kansas City, had adopted the same arguments.
“The Kansas Constitution provides strong protections for political equality and against partisan manipulation,” Judge Bill Klapper wrote. He added: “It recognizes that ‘all political power is inherent in the people’ and that ‘all free governments are based on their authority and are instituted for their equal protection.'”
“Sister state decisions support this conclusion,” he wrote, noting that the North Carolina Constitution contains similar clauses.
Justice Klapper’s decision, made obsolete by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday, barred the Legislature from holding elections under the plan and requested that lawmakers draw new maps “as soon as possible.”
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, had vetoed the map from Congress after large Republican majorities in the state House and Senate approved it in late January, but the Legislature overrode her veto.
Republican lawmakers had argued that a Democratic candidate could win the Third District and that the new boundaries were a reasonable way to account for population shifts and ensure all four districts had the same number of residents.
In a hearing on the case before the Supreme Court on Monday, Republican-appointed state Attorney General Brant M. Laue argued that the Kansas Constitution recognized only two discrimination-based challenges to political maps: racial bias and the concept of one person, one vote.
How US Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It is the redrawing of congressional and state legislative district lines. It occurs every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in the population.
Allowing a third challenge, rooted in discrimination against members of a political party, he said, would take the court into uncharted territory.
“Where does it stop?” he said. “Is it age? Is it a manipulation based on religion? When asked if he could imagine any case in which a partisan gerrymander could be declared unconstitutional, Mr. Laue replied, “I don’t think so, under the Kansas Constitution.”
He noted that the US Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in 2019 when it ruled that partisan gerrymanders were a political problem, beyond the court’s jurisdiction.
Campaign Law Center Senior Vice President Paul M. Smith said the ruling was “a slap in the face of voters and contravenes the democratic values set forth in the Kansas Constitution itself.”
The ruling appeared to be a setback for the growing movement to challenge partisan maps in state courts, an avenue the US Supreme Court left open in its 2019 ruling.
Josh Douglas, an expert on state election law at the University of Kentucky Law School, said the release of the justices’ written opinion could further clarify the impact of the decision. A sweeping statement along the lines of Mr. Laue’s argument, that the court had no authority over gerrymanders, or that rights in the state Constitution did not apply to partisan maps, could resonate in future state court cases, he said.
“If it sets a marker,” he said, “it is worrying” for opponents of partisan gerrymanders.