TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans improved their chances of overthrowing Kansas’ only congressional seat held by a Democrat on Wednesday, when the state’s highest court upheld the new congressional map they had drawn.
The map cuts out territory from the Kansas City district Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids carried by a 2-to-1 margin and replaces it with three counties that former President Donald Trump carried by more than 40 percentage points in 2020 Republicans argued that Davids would still have carried the new district two years ago and that the map was a fair way to rebalance the number of residents in each of the state’s four districts after 10 years of population shifts.
Lawyers for Kansas voters and the voting rights advocacy group who challenged the map urged the state Supreme Court to declare that broad language about “inalienable natural rights” and “equal protection and benefits” in the state bill of rights prohibits overly partisan and racial gerrymandering.
But the judges apparently didn’t see it that way.
Their decision bucks what has been a trend in a small but growing number of states since the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in 2019 that complaints regarding partisan gerrymandering are political issues and not for the federal courts to resolve.
“The only recourse for people wishing to challenge the maps is in state court,” said Michael Li, an attorney and redistricting expert for the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “Kansas is potentially the only one that can say it’s not covered by the state constitution.”
However, the Kansas court’s reasoning is still unclear. His notice was two paragraphs long, saying only that voters and the voting rights group challenging the map “have not prevailed on their claims” that the map violated the state constitution and that a full notice would come later.
The brief ruling was written by Judge Caleb Stegall, who is considered the most conservative of the court’s seven justices, five of whom were appointed by Democratic governors. During closing arguments Monday, he wondered if anyone could clearly define inappropriate partisan gerrymandering.
Lawsuits over new congressional district lines have proliferated across the United States as Republicans seek to regain a majority in the US House in this year’s midterm elections. Congressional maps in at least 17 states have inspired lawsuits, according to the Brennan Center.
State courts have ruled in favor of Democrats in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. New York’s highest court recently ruled that state’s new districts were gerrymanders to favor Democrats.
In Kansas, the Republican-controlled legislature enacted the map over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto, and Davids said Wednesday the new district lines were the result of “rushed hearings” and “backroom deals.” His likely GOP opponent, Amanda Adkins, said in a statement that the new map “is proof that our democratic process is working.”
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, hailed the decision as a victory for “the public’s right to establish new districts through their elected representatives.”
In the past, Kansas congressional district lines have been reviewed by federal judges, not the state Supreme Court. The state solicitor general, appointed by Schmidt, argued that because the state constitution does not specifically mention gerrymandering or congressional redistricting, the Kansas Supreme Court should dismiss the legal challenges.
Democrats feared the decision would give unlimited power to the Legislature, which has almost always had GOP majorities.
They argued that not only was the map drawn to help Republicans unseat Davids in the 3rd District, but it also diluted the political clout of black and Latino voters. Twenty voters and the suffrage group Loud Light filed three lawsuits that were consolidated into one, and a lower court sided with them.
Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, called Wednesday’s decision “a devastating blow to our democracy.”
“It looks like the Supreme Court of Kansas just declared that all political power lies with the Republican Party, not with the people,” he said.
The map moved the northern portion of Kansas City, Kansas, out of the 3rd District represented by Davids and into the larger 2nd District of eastern Kansas represented by Republican Representative Jake LaTurner. Kansas City, Kansas, is one of the state’s few GOP-leaning Democratic strongholds.
The map also moved the liberal town of Lawrence in northeastern Kansas, a Democratic stronghold that is home to the main campus of the University of Kansas and is about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Kansas City, out of the 2nd district. Instead, the city of 95,000 was added to the already sprawling 1st District, which is dominated by small, conservative communities in central and western Kansas.
In a separate ruling, the state Supreme Court also upheld Republican-drawn maps for legislative districts that should preserve GOP supermajorities in both houses.
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