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Ky. Supreme Court rules GOP-drawn redistricting maps constitutional

Kentucky Supreme Court Chamber
Creative Commons
Kentucky Supreme Court Chamber

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday the electoral maps Republicans drew in 2022 do not violate the state’s constitution, upholding a lower court’s decision.

A majority of justices agreed Republicans’ maps show evidence of partisan influence, but not enough to violate the constitution.

“While partisan redistricting resulting in a more significantly disparate outcome might rise to a level of constitutional infirmity, we need not resolve today precisely what level of disparate result would warrant such a finding,” the majority opinion read.

The Kentucky Democratic Party sued the state last year arguing GOP-drawn congressional and state House maps systematically diluted Democrats’ voting power in a process known as partisan gerrymandering.

A lower court agreed the maps showed evidence Republican politicians manipulated electoral maps to favor their party during the redistricting process. Franklin Circuit’s Thomas D. Wingate also decided there’s nothing in the state constitution to stop lawmakers so long as population distributions within each map are roughly the same. The state Supreme Court largely agreed.

“We make plain what we have previously suggested and hold that the Kentucky Constitution does not wholly forbid the General Assembly’s consideration of any partisan interest whatsoever in the apportionment process,” the majority decision read.

In Thursday’s ruling, the Court left the door open to find future gerrymandered maps in violation of the state Constitution, but also found the 2022 GOP-drawn maps did not reach “the level of a clear, flagrant, and unwarranted violation of constitutional rights or so severe as to threaten our democratic form of government.”

Secretary of State Michael Adams, who was named as a defendant in the case, said in a statement the lawsuit was “reckless, frivolous and hypocritical.”

“[The lawsuit] sought to impose a different set of election rules through the courts, following Democrats’ loss of legislative control that they had previously won for decades under those very rules,” Adams said.”

In a statement, the Kentucky House Democratic Caucus leadership said they feared the Court’s decision would make partisan gerrymandering the “standard procedure” moving forward.

“We firmly disagree with today’s Kentucky Supreme Court decision. It gives legislative majorities much more authority to protect themselves at the expense of many voters while guaranteeing more political polarization for decades to come,” the statement read.

Only one justice questioned the constitutionality of the redrawn maps, but three others disagreed with different portions of the decision — mainly arguing the courts shouldn’t have even ruled on the case at all. Two justices disagreed with the entirety of the decision saying in their dissent they don’t think the state’s Democratic Party even had the right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

“The KDP does not satisfy the third element of associational standing for one very simple reason — it is not a voter,” Justice Robert B. Conley, from eastern Kentucky, wrote in his dissenting opinion.

Another justice questioned whether it was the court’s job to rule on the matter of partisan gerrymandering, calling it a “nonjusticiable political question.”

Justice Michelle M. Keller, who argued the maps were unconstitutional, said in her dissent the maps violated Section 33 of the Kentucky Constitution, which requires, among other things, that districts contain equal populations and not divide or join counties unnecessarily. The majority of the court decided the maps did not have to split or join the least number of counties possible, just limit the number as a general rule. Keller said there are several other conditions in Section 33 that do not receive equal weight from the court.

“Today, the Majority of this Court reaffirms our repeated dilution of Section 33’s explicit requirements,” Keller wrote. “Perhaps some unnecessary deviations from Section 33’s text are constitutionally tolerable, but I am of the opinion that the violations before us today rise to intolerable levels.”

If the state Supreme Court had decided to throw out the maps, the legislature would have had to redraw them in the upcoming legislative session ahead of the 2024 election cycle. They also likely would have had to push back the candidate filing deadline, which is Jan. 5.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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