ACLU of Kansas wants U.S. Supreme Court to ditch state’s congressional map over race

by Dylan Lysen, KCUR and Kansas News Service

The civil rights group argues the Kansas Supreme Court incorrectly interpreted federal law when it ruled race wasn’t a factor in the map drawn by the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas wants the U.S. Supreme Court to force the redrawing on Kansas congressional districts, arguing the state’s high court didn’t account for racial bias.

An ACLU appeal to the nation’s highest court argued the new map used in the 2022 elections reflects a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that “greenlights intentional race discrimination in redistricting.”

The group’s petition comes after the organization lost its challenge to the map in the state court system earlier this year.

Sharon Brett, legal director for ACLU of Kansas, said the recently filed petition argues Kansas justices incorrectly interpreted federal law. The organization contends the map drowns out the votes of racial minorities in Wyandotte County in violation of equal protection laws.

“Because we believe that the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling was based on an error with regard to federal law,” Brett said, “we have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and correct that federal law error.”

Christopher Gunn, a Washburn University law professor who specializes in elections, said the civil rights group may have a strong argument in the petition because it focuses solely on the racial aspect of redistricting.

Brett and other attorneys originally challenged the map for drowning out the minority vote of Wyandotte County by splitting the county’s residents into two separate districts. They also argued the map was politically gerrymandered in the favor of Republican candidates by shifting the Democratic stronghold of Lawrence into the mostly rural 1st District.

Critics of the map said those moves diluted the power of Democratic voting blocs. Republican lawmakers who crafted the map said the changes to the districts were needed because of population shifts in Kansas.

The four Kansas congressional districts drawn by the Kansas Legislature in 2022 are shown in color compared to the old district lines that were drawn in 2012 shown in black.

The Wyandotte District Court agreed with challenges to the new map. District Court Judge Bill Klapper at one point during a trial in April called the evidence that political and racial gerrymandering had occurred “overwhelming.”

In May, the Kansas Supreme Court tossed Klapper’s ruling and reversed the decision.

In its published opinion, the court said the civil rights groups failed to prove Republicans used race as a predominant factor in the redrawing of districts. The court also said that the Kansas Constitution lets lawmakers consider partisanship when drawing new district maps for elections.

Kansas courts had never previously heard a case on whether gerrymandering violates the state constitution. The ruling set a standard for how far one political party in Kansas can gerrymander congressional districts.

However, the new petition to the federal court specifically challenges the state court’s ruling on the racial aspect. In the filing, the ACLU of Kansas argues the ruling allows intentional race discrimination against racial minorities, which would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s clause that provides equal protection of the law.

“It is a claim of racial vote dilution,” Brett said, “of intentional race discrimination in the drawing of the maps in a way that dilutes the voices of minority voters.”

Gunn said the group’s argument may be more compelling in federal court than it was in state court. He said the state’s ruling said too few racial minorities were affected by the new district lines to be considered a factor. But that may not pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There’s some teeth to this argument,” Gunn said, “because the federal supreme court’s jurisprudence on this issue tends toward the notion that it doesn’t matter how many people are being affected.”

The state has until the end of December to respond to the petition before the court will consider taking up the case.

Meanwhile, the alleged political gerrymandering of the map did not make much of a difference during the midterm elections — the first time the map was used.

Democrats feared the new lines would make it more difficult for Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids to win reelection in the 3rd District that represents the Kansas City area. That would have handed the state’s only Democratic-leaning district over to the Republicans and put all four of the state’s congressional districts in GOP hands.

Despite losing racial minority voting blocs and gaining more rural Republican-leaning areas, Davids still won the district handily — defeating Republican challenger Amanda Adkins for a second time.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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Kansas Supreme Court issues full opinions on legislative, congressional redistricting cases

Justices outline details of decisions affirming constitutionality of maps

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The Kansas Supreme Court released full opinions Tuesday of decisions affirming constitutionality of new congressional and legislative district maps for use in the 2022 elections that concluded reliance on partisanship to gerrymander district boundaries wasn’t prohibited.

Justice Caleb Stegall, writing for the majority in the congressional mapping case, said absence of standards in the Kansas Constitution or in Kansas statute limiting the Legislature’s use of political factors when crafting boundaries left the Supreme Court without a basis to reject work of state lawmakers.

“We can discern no judicially manageable standards by which to judge a claim that the Legislature relied too heavily on the otherwise lawful factor of partisanship when drawing district lines,” Stegall said in the 105-page opinion on the congressional map. “As such, the question presented is a political question and is nonjusticiable, at least until such a time as the Legislature or the people of Kansas choose to codify such a standard into law.”

In May, the Supreme Court released a notice reversing Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper. He had found unconstitutional the congressional map splitting racially diverse Wyandotte County between the 2nd and 3rd Districts and moving liberal-leaning Lawrence to the rural 1st District.

The state’s highest court let stand the “Ad Astra 2” congressional map drafted by Republican legislators and adopted over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.

That GOP map contained in Senate Bill 355 was designed to undermine reelection prospects of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the lone Democrat in the state’s federal delegation.

The Supreme Court also affirmed last month constitutionality of the map outlining districts of the Kansas House and Kansas Senate. In the subsequent analysis Tuesday, Stegall wrote in a 15-page opinion the Legislature’s recasting of the 125 House and 40 Senate districts was “not a perfect plan,” because no “district reapportionment plan ever is.”

He said contents of Senate Bill 563, which applied 2020 Census figures to the remapping task, did comply with the Kansas Constitution.

“The Legislature used the procedure required by the Kansas Constitution to pass the bill,” said Stegall, an appointee of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. “The legislative maps contained in Sub. SB 563 also satisfy the constitutional requirement of one person, one vote; they are not discriminatory; they satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act; and they raise no additional constitutional concerns.”

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New state House, Senate maps receive Kansas Supreme Court approval

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the validity Wednesday of the newly drawn boundaries for state House and Senate districts.

The decision comes two days after justices heard oral arguments in response to a petition filed April 25 by Attorney General Derek Schmidt requesting the court review the maps contained in Senate Bill 563. The state constitution requires this petition to be filed within 15 days of map publication in the Kansas register and gives the court 30 days to consider the matter from the time of filing.

Opponents of the maps raised issues with a perceived lack of consideration given to communities of interest and other redistricting guidelines. But Schmidt asked the court to look past the process to the eventual product, which he said violated no law.

By ruling in favor of the new legislative districts, the panel of justices appeared to concur with the attorney general’s line of thought.

“Because the Constitution requires this court to enter judgment within 30 days from the filing of the petition, today we announce our decision unanimously upholding the validity, under article 10, section 1 of the Kansas Constitution, of the state senatorial and representative districts,” wrote Justice Caleb Stegall in the decision.

Stegall, an appointee of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, added that a full opinion with “the facts, rationale, and holdings” was forthcoming.

Because new boundaries were not established before May 10, the filing deadline for for the Aug. 2 primary election for U.S. House, state House and Board of Education races was pushed back from June 1 to noon on June 10. Statewide offices and districts without changes to their districts still must file by June 1.

Up for grabs in 2022: one of the two U.S. Senate seats, all four U.S. House seats, all six Kansas government statewide offices, all 125 Kansas House seats and five of the 10 Kansas Board of Education seats.

Schmidt, the presumptive GOP nominee for governor, applauded the decision.

“We have successfully defended every Kansan’s right to equal protection of the law in exercising their right to vote, as well as the public’s right to establish new districts through their elected representatives,” Schmidt said. “I am grateful for the expeditious manner in which the court announced the outcome of the case, and this year’s candidate filings and election preparations can now proceed.”

Many Kansans filed written testimony to the Supreme Court, including the League of Women Voters co-president Martha Pint, who said the Legislature’s allocation of the House districts and 40 Senate districts intentionally fractured communities of color, weakening minority voting strength. Communities of note included Wichita, Olathe, Kansas City, Kansas, Leavenworth and Lawrence, the latter two of which were the subject of complaints from an intervening party during oral arguments.

Mark Johnson, a Kansas City area attorney, represented Democratic Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, who was placed in a new district where he would have to run in 2024 against incumbent Republican Sen. Beverley Gossage of Eudora. Under the bill, Senate district lines would remain the same until 2024, but Johnson argued unsuccessfully that the new maps would leave Kansans confused and misrepresented.

“I think you need to look at the process that led to the district lines that are at issue here, rather than simply the procedure by which the legislation was passed,” Johnson told justices Monday. “It’s a broader question.”

Under the state constitution, the Legislature must produce updated maps for the 125 Kansas House districts, 40 Kansas Senate districts, the Kansas Board of Education and the state’s four U.S. House districts every 10 years. The bill containing the new maps was approved 83-40 in the House and 29-11 in the Senate before Gov. Laura Kelly signed it.

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