Congressional map drawn by Kansas Republicans is unconstitutional, Wyandotte County judge rules

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Article updated at 7:24 p.m. Monday, April 25:

TOPEKA — Wyandotte County District Judge Bill Klapper ruled Monday that Kansas Republicans violated the state constitution by targeting residents on the basis of politics and race when drawing new congressional districts.

Klapper’s order, which Attorney General Derek Schmidt immediately appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, blocks the state from preparing for the congressional election until a new map is drawn. The judge ordered the Legislature to come up with “a remedial plan” as soon as possible.

In a 209-page opinion that quotes from 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu, the Buddha and Kansas (the band) singer Steve Walsh, Klapper wrote that Kansans “expect nothing more than a level playing field devoid of partisan advantage for one group.”

“This court suggests most Kansans would be appalled to know how the contest has been artificially engineered to give one segment of the political apparatus an unfair and unearned advantage,” Klapper wrote.

The ruling follows a consolidated trial for three lawsuits that were filed in response to a new congressional map passed by the Legislature this session. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas,  former federal prosecutors Barry Grissom and Stephen McAllister, and the D.C.-based Elias Group and Campaign Legal Center were involved in challenging the map.

Republicans drew a map that divides the Kansas City metro along Interstate 70, separating a diverse community in the northern part of Wyandotte County from the 3rd District, making it more difficult for the state’s only Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, to win reelection. The map avoids giving Democrats an edge in the 2nd District by carving Lawrence out of Douglas County and placing the liberal-leaning community into the highly conservative 1st District that extends to the Colorado border.

“We are thankful that Judge Klapper saw this map for what it was — a deliberate attempt to silence the political voices of Democratic and minority Kansans,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “Although we know this case is not over yet, we look forward to settling this issue and securing the rights of our clients in the Kansas Supreme Court.”

This is the first time a gerrymandering cases has been litigated in Kansas courts.

The Kansas Supreme Court tasked Klapper with determining whether the Kansas Constitution contains protections against dividing communities of color and partisan gerrymandering, with the understanding the ruling would be appealed regardless of the decision. Federal courts previously handled these disputes, until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2019 determined federal courts should have no say on the topic.

Plaintiffs pointed to comments made in 2020 by former Senate President Susan Wagle, who said a Republican supermajority in the Legislature would allow the party to draw congressional districts that ensure the state only elects Republicans. As Wagle predicted, the two-thirds majority allowed the Legislature to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Attorneys hired by Schmidt, a Republican who faces Kelly in this year’s gubernatorial race, argued that the redrawn map still gives Davids a chance to win reelection.

Klapper ruled lawmakers produced a congressional map that “intentionally and effectively dilutes minority votes in violation of the Kansas Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”

“As a student working to build power with young Kansans, it’s important for my community to have real representation and for our votes to matter,” said Paris Raite, a plaintiff from Lawrence. “Today’s ruling in our favor is a victory to all communities building power in Lawrence and throughout the rest of the state.”

The ruling was expected to be appealed regardless of the outcome.

“Today’s Wyandotte County District Court decision may be the first redistricting case ever to make use of folk-song lyrics, the Buddha, and personal memories from the judge’s childhood,” Schmidt said. “The state is promptly appealing.”

In a statement, House Republican leadership said “it is not surprising that a partisan Democrat judge sided with Laura Kelly’s East coast special interest groups to usurp lawfully enacted maps approved by a supermajority of the people’s representatives. We look forward to the Attorney General’s appeal of this erroneous decision.”

Former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, appointed Klapper to the judicial seat in 2013.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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