Republicans and Democrats from Missouri agree: courts must intervene in new district elections | KCUR 89.3
Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on at least one point: the courts need to intervene in Missouri’s congressional redistribution standoff.
The open questions, however, are what kind of judge can actually act – and is it too late to do anything this year?
In recent weeks, two lawsuits have been filed by attorneys for Democratic and Republican interests over the inability of the Missouri General Assembly to redefine the state’s eight congressional districts. Their argument to the Cole County judges is basically the same: that the Missouri Constitution requires that the districts have approximately equal populations, and that using the 2011 lines to conduct elections would be a violation of this document.
“If the state cannot or will not enact a new congressional plan and map, this court should adopt its own congressional plan and map and extend or create a new filing deadline for such districts to ensure candidates are filing in the proper congressional districts in advance may of the August 2, 2022 primary,” said a lawsuit filed late last month on behalf of three Missouri Republican Party officials.
Another lawsuit involving prominent Democratic attorney Marc Elias company also claims “The significant population shifts that have occurred since the 2010 census and the release of the 2020 census results, Missouri’s congressional districts — which were drawn based on the 2010 census data — are now unconstitutionally misallocated.”
“Any future application of Missouri’s current congressional district plan would violate plaintiffs’ constitutional right to cast an equal, undiluted vote,” said a lawsuit pushed by multiple Missouri voters and being handled by Missouri Attorney Chuck Hatfield.
Even if both lawsuits are valid, it is an open question what state judges can do from a practical point of view.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said the Missouri Constitution does not give state judges the power to redraw districts – adding that the legislature clearly has responsibility for drawing the lines.
“The Missouri Constitution expressly and only gives the legislature the power to draw the map. The Missouri Supreme Court does not have that authority,” Ashcroft said. “We are a rule of law. You can’t just decide that we’re going to do something we’re not authorized to do. I can’t decide that I can suddenly stop people like I’m a highway cop. I’m not.”
In a statement, Marc Ellinger and Lowell Pearson, two attorneys handling the lawsuit on behalf of Republican Party officials, said: “The Missouri Constitution provides for the state to redistrict districts. The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to do so and reopen filing for two weeks if the state does so. Any discussion of other issues is premature at this point.”
Hatfield did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the court case in which he is involved.
Both Ashcroft and Washington University School of Law professor Travis Crum said there was precedent for federal courts to engage in the redistribution of prosecutions. Crum said the typical approach is for a three-judge panel to draw new lines at the end.
And that setup, Crum said, will affect what the end product would look like. For example, it’s unlikely the court would accept a so-called 7-1 card that renders Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s 5th District in Kansas City unwinnable for Democrats.
“If you have three judges in the room, they have to agree among themselves that this card is constitutional,” Crum said. “And I think that’s kind of driving the process of adopting a ‘least change map’ now.”
Currently, Missouri has five strong Republican districts, two strong Democratic districts, and one district in the suburbs of St. Louis represented by US Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, which is considered a swing district.
However, Ashcroft said federal judges could not intervene in Missouri this year, based on a legal principle that the judiciary dislikes interfering in election-related matters so close to Election Day. He indicated a decision regarding the redistribution of Alabama who used this legal precedent to delay the redrawing of congressional districts.
“I could see the court saying, ‘Yes, you shall do that. And next year you have to do that,'” Ashcroft said. “And then we go ahead and do that later. But we really don’t want to confuse people by saying we’re getting close. [The state’s filing period] already finished. We are nearing the point when our electoral authorities will need to mail their ballots to get them printed and we need to know who should get which ballots. And we’re just running out of time.”
However, Crum noted that in the Alabama case, a lower court ordered a restatement of issues under the Voting Rights Act — as opposed to legislative paralysis in Missouri as new congressional lines were drawn up. “Missouri failed to enact a new congressional district map, and you cannot use the 2010 map because it is grossly inaccurate at this time,” he said.
Lawmakers can prevent any chance of the judiciary interfering in the making of a congressional ticket by reaching some kind of compromise. The legislative period in Missouri is expected to last until mid-May.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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