TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas district court judge on Monday struck down a new Republican-backed congressional map that would likely make it harder for the only Democrat in the state's delegation to win reelection this year.
It was the first time a court has declared that the Kansas Constitution prohibits political gerrymandering. The state attorney general's office notified the Kansas Supreme Court almost immediately to expect an appeal of the decision.
Lawsuits over new congressional-district lines have proliferated across the U.S. with Republicans looking to recapture a U.S. House majority in this year's midterm elections. State courts have issued decisions favoring Democrats in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a new GOP map in Florida is being challenged. A mid-level appeals court in New York recently declared its new districts drawn unfairly to favor Democrats.
Monday's decision from Wyandotte County District Judge Bill Klapper in the Kansas City area came a little more than five weeks before the state's June 1 candidate filing deadline. He ordered legislators to draft another map after declaring that the challenged one not only was too partisan but diluted minority voters' political clout.
“The Buddha says the only consistent thing in the universe is change. One does not have to be a Buddhist to realize change is always taking place,” Klapper wrote in his 209-page opinion. “We must not be naive enough to believe change can be prevented by suppressing its voice.”
Democrats have criticized the map as political gerrymandering. Lawsuits claimed it violated voting rights and constitutional guarantees of equal rights for all Kansas residents and freedom of speech and assembly. Critics also said the map was unacceptable under the state constitution because it diluted the political power of Black and Hispanic voters in the Kansas City area by splitting them up.
Top Republican legislators immediately dismissed the ruling as coming from a partisan judge because Klapper is an elected Democrat.
“Nobody is shocked by that result,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican. “So on to the next step, which we all expected to be at.”
The map moved the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, out of the 3rd District represented by Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids and into the larger 2nd District of eastern Kansas represented by Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner. Kansas City, Kansas, is among the few Democratic strongholds in the GOP-leaning state. Davids lost territory where she performs well, while the new map added several rural, heavily Republican counties to her district.
The map also moved the liberal northeast Kansas city of Lawrence — another Democratic stronghold and home to the main University of Kansas campus — out of the 2nd District. The city of 95,000 is now in the already sprawling 1st District of central and western Kansas with small conservative communities, some six hours away by car.
State Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, jumped up and down with joy in a Statehouse elevator when she learned of the ruling. She noted that she had argued repeatedly that the map was gerrymandering that hurt minority voters.
“I’m glad they saw it for what it was,” Ballard said.
Klapper ruled in three consolidated lawsuits filed by a voting rights group, Loud Light, and 20 voters in the Kansas City and Lawrence areas. Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state's top elections official, and local elections officials are the defendants.
The state argued that Davids' district emerged slightly more competitive than it had been. They also said the changes were driven by the need to satisfy past federal court decisions requiring districts to have as equal a number of residents as possible after 10 years of population shifts.
The state's attorneys also argued that nothing in the Kansas Constitution allows state courts — rather than federal courts — to review congressional maps or to consider political gerrymandering as an issue. Federal judges have decided challenges to Kansas' congressional redistricting in the past; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that complaints about partisan gerrymandering are political issues and not for the federal courts to resolve.
Klapper wrote: "But when the Kansas Legislature violates the Kansas Constitution, including in its enactment of congressional redistricting legislation, Kansas courts have the power and duty to exercise judicial review and invalidate the Legislature’s unconstitutional action.”
Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court has until May 25 under the state constitution to rule on a separate law redrawing Kansas House, Kansas Senate and State Board of Education districts.
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John Hanna, The Associated Press