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Ky. Supreme Court hears arguments over redistricting maps

Kentucky Capitol building with blue sky background.
Ryland Barton
/
LPM
The Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort.

The Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether electoral maps drawn by Republicans during the 2022 redistricting process are constitutional.

The case, brought by the Kentucky Democratic Party, hinges on whether state courts can prohibit partisan gerrymandering – the process where politicians manipulate electoral maps to favor their party through redistricting.

A lower court judge, Franklin Circuit’s Thomas D. Wingate said last year that yes, the maps are gerrymandered, but went on to rule that nothing in the state constitution blocks the political maneuver since the population distributions within each map were roughly equal.

Democrats allege the GOP-drawn electoral maps for the Kentucky House of Representatives and the state’s six Congressional districts unfairly favor Republicans.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the Democratic Party’s lawyer Michael Abate argued that it’s not enough to control population size within districts. He said the partisan nature of the maps violate the constitutional mandate that elections be “free and equal.”

“An election where the outcome is preordained is not free or equal,” Abate said. “We proved that’s not because of Kentucky’s unique political geography. It was an intentional choice by the mapmakers to draw lines to favor Republicans at every turn.”

The Democratic Party argues that statistical models show the voting power of Democrats was systematically diluted under the GOP-drawn maps.

During the hearing, some of the justices honed in on the odd shapes of districts and the decision to split cities – like Covington, Bowling Green and Richmond – into several non-contiguous portions that sometimes include parts of other counties.

Justice Christopher Shea Nickell focused on the odd shape of 1st Congressional District, which swoops up from the southwestern border of the state to include Franklin County in central Kentucky. Nickell called the feature the “Comer Hook,” referring to Republican Congressman James Comer, who has residences in both Monroe and Franklin Counties.

“I feel compelled to speak of my great pride in hailing from the far western portion of our great Commonwealth. And from my vantage, it would seem entirely reasonable to expect anyone aspiring to represent our region to have pride enough in its people, heritage and culture to want to actually reside within its traditional borders,” Nickell said.

Assistant Deputy Attorney General Victor Maddox, who defended the election maps, said they don’t provide a significant GOP advantage.

Democrats suffered major losses at the legislative level in Kentucky over the last decade, even though they were in control of the last round of redistricting. Maddox said that’s proof partisan gerrymandering isn’t a problem in the state.

“That fact alone puts aside the KDPs claims of partisan unfairness,” Maddox said. “And it provides the most compelling reason for this court to reaffirm its long standing rules regarding redistricting, and more important to stay out of the political thicket that redistricting represents.”

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, a defendant in the case, said the legal system gives lawmakers broad authority to draw their own electoral maps.

“This is a matter in the constitution left up to the legislature. And they can use their own standards as long as they comply with the Voting Rights Act, et cetera,” Adams said.

The Democratic Party is asking the Supreme Court to throw out the two maps and order the state legislature to try again.

If the court did order the legislature to try again, the new districts would have to be in place in time for the 2024 elections, Adams said. He said that might lead the courts or legislature to extend candidate filing deadlines or change voting dates.

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