State high court rehears arguments on congressional redistricting
JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Supreme Court could issue its decision within days on the congressional redistricting map that, if it stands, will force U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan to decide whether he runs in a new district or chooses a new political path.
But even if the court tosses out the map, their reasons may have little to do with Carnahan or the new congressional district lines planned for the St. Louis region.
Rather, several high-court judges reaffirmed today that their concerns center on the "teardrop" boundary in the Kansas City area, that puts part of urban Jackson County into the overwhelmingly rural 6th District that otherwise spans northern Missouri.
This morning, the court again heard dueling arguments for and against the overall map, as lawyers sparred over the state constitution's meaning when it stipulated that congressional districts must be "as compact as may be."
Opponents of the map say it fails that test. Proponents, including the state attorney general's lawyer, argue that it meets it.
Today's hearing was, in many respects, a replay of the January hearing before the Supreme Court. But several judges made clear that wasn't what they had in mind.
Some had hoped that a lower-court trial, held a couple weeks ago, would resolve certain issues such as the teardrop shape. Instead, the ruling by Cole Court Circuit Judge Daniel Green centered on the broader issues of whether the overall map was good enough to meet the state constitution's requirements. Green ruled that it did.
No legislative witnesses testified during that trial about the legislators' reasons for the "teardrop" and other boundary decisions challenged in the two lawsuits that have been combined for the Supreme Court hearings. The lack of such testimony was lamented by a couple of Supreme Court judges today.
Coincidentally, their hearing audience included the two most likely witnesses -- the map's chief architects, state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, and state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country. Neither made any comments about today's proceedings, although both have maintained that the map met constitutional requirements.
Rupp, Diehl and other backers of the map have acknowledged that their intent, in part, had been to protect the six Republican members of Missouri's delegation in the U.S. House. But they also have emphasized their belief that such actions did not violate the state constitution, a view also shared by Judge Green.
Carnahan's 3rd District became the target because Missouri is losing one of its nine U.S. House seats. His district was divided into several other districts, with the new 3rd District made up largely of what is now the 9th District, represented by U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.
Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the map, but the General Assembly overrode that veto, with the help of four House Democrats -- two in the Kansas City area and two from St. Louis.
Carnahan's residence was put into the new 1st District, now represented by fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay. Speculation has heightened that Carnahan may challenge Clay in the August primary, should the new map stand, but so far Carnahan has not declared his intentions.
A lawyer for Clay, meanwhile, had filed a brief in which the congressman made clear his support for the new map and argued against drawing up another one.
Today's court hearing featured other maps filed by both sides as evidence. Backers of the new map filed old ones to highlight oddities in previous Missouri congressional maps; opponents displayed alternatives that they said were simply illustrations to show better ways to meet the state constitution's "compactness" standard.
Acting chief Judge Mary Breckenridge asked the lawyers for both sides to leave the maps so the judges could examine them for guidance.
Still, the high court's judges indicated that -- even if they toss out the challenged map -- they had no intention of drawing a new one. Rather, the court signaled that such a task would be tossed back to the General Assembly.
Start of update: Perhaps in preparation for such a task, the state Senate approved today a bill that would delay candidate-filing by a month so that it would begin March 27. Otherwise, it's set to begin Feb. 28.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said that the state House has agreed to put the bill on "a fast track'' so that it could get a floor vote early next week. The aim, he said, is "to give some breathing room'' to a new bipartisan commission set up to draw new state Senate boundary lines. The action is required because the Supreme Court tossed out the earlier version last month. End update
As in January, today's hearing featured three substitute judges because three Supreme Court judges from the St. Louis area recused themselves: Chief Justice Richard B. Teitelman and judges Mary R. Russell and George W. Draper III.
Their replacements are judges from outstate appellete panels, which means the St. Louis area has little Supreme Court representation in this court case.
If the state Supreme Court adheres to its regular schedule of handing decisions, its ruling would not be expected until March 6. However, lawyers on both sides say they wouldn't be surprised to see a decision in this case come down much sooner.
Among other things, the Supreme Court also has to prepare for possible actions in other legal disputes involving maps for the state House and Senate -- especially if the new Senate commission fails to reach an agreement on a new one.
Contact Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies.