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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kentucky's Legislative Redistricting Proves Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

Redistrict outrages may face redress
Written by Al Cross

FRANKFORT, Ky. — There is redistricting, and there is redistricting.

The latter is what went down in Frankfort last week, and it went down hard. We figured it would be bad, but not that bad. And things will probably get messier.

Not only did the House and Senate’s partisan majorities pass politically outrageous plans for their respective chambers, going beyond the usual majority protection and minority punishment, but the House plan was unconstitutional on its face.

That was clear — to anyone who knows the rules of redistricting and the rough populations of Kentucky counties — upon first glance. Or, as the lawyers might say, “Prima facie, baby. Let’s go to court!”

And it looks as though Republicans will do just that.

“We’re headed that way,” House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown told me Thursday afternoon, as the bill headed to Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk for signature into law. “Our plan is to seek an injunction and then proceed with the litigation.”

An injunction from a judge could block the bill from taking effect, forcing a delay in the Jan. 31 filing deadline for legislative seats, and perhaps in the May primary elections. And then maybe a special legislative session to pass a plan that meets constitutional muster.

All this because House Democrats thumbed their noses at Section 33 of the Kentucky Constitution, which says a county not large enough to make its own district can’t be divided by a district line. The House divided six such counties: Harlan, Lawrence, Letcher (three ways), Lewis (three ways), Mercer and Trigg.

The configuration of the state and its counties might require dividing two such counties (Bell, Calloway or counties adjoining them, such as Harlan and Trigg), according to a 1995 state Supreme Court decision. That was the ruling that revived the 1891 constitution’s rule against county division, which lawmakers thought had been nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decisions.

The legislature complied with the ruling in 1996, but the next time the House drew districts, it backslid, dividing four counties that clearly had no business being divided, two of them (Rowan and Wolfe) in one district — that of Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, who privately bullied the mapmakers into submission.

No one sued to invalidate that map, so perhaps House leaders thought they could get away with it again. But the latest map needs to be challenged in court because it is such a monstrosity — legally, geographically and politically — and only the courts can hold the legislature truly accountable.

In addition to the three-way splits of two counties, the House map creates bizarre districts that make a mockery of the basic redistricting principles that districts should be relatively compact and reflect communities of interest. Hoover said the map splits 246 precincts, which will cost local officials time, trouble and probably money.

The new District 80 of Rep. Danny Ford, R-Mount Vernon, runs from the Fayette County line through western Madison County to his home Rockcastle County, which is connected to Casey County by a narrow strip of Pulaski County, along the Lincoln County line.

Just to the east, the new District 89 of Rep. Marie Rader, R-McKee, connects her home Jackson County with McCreary County via a jagged strip through the middle of Laurel County, which is divided among five districts. Though Laurel and McCreary adjoin, they have no direct road connection.

The same is true of Russell and Cumberland, the middle counties in Hoover’s extenuated, new District 83. It is probably one of the five House districts that will have more than one incumbent, presuming a special election next month fills the unexpired term of Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer with another Tompkinsville Republican. There are three incumbents in the new 17th District, Butler and Edmonson counties and part of Warren County.

All the matched-up incumbents are Republicans, except Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, whose new District 99 looks much more favorable to him than to freshman Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson.

The Senate map is probably constitutional, but even more politically objectionable.

More than a fourth of senators — 10 of 38 — will be in districts with other incumbents. Since Republicans control the Senate, it’s the Democrats who are getting it in the neck, probably killing their chances of regaining Senate control any time soon.

But the real political hit job is what the bill does to Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, a thorn in the side of Senate President David Williams. It moves her district number, 13, to northeastern Kentucky and gives her old district an even number. Only odd-numbered seats are on this year’s ballot, and there is a one-year residency requirement, so there is no Senate seat for which Stein can run this year.

Lexington’s urban core will be represented, at least theoretically, by Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, whose district number was moved there. Only one other Senate district, a suburban one, lies wholly in Lexington-Fayette, so the state’s second-largest city may not have a proportionate voice in the Senate for two years. If there is a constitutional flaw in the Senate map, this may be it.

Redistricting is always the most political of legislative tasks, and Kentuckians have become inured in the last decade to the legislature putting a priority on politics. Now it has again gone too far, and the courts must put things right. And legislators must think about giving the task to some independent, bipartisan body.

Redistricting is not just a game of inside political baseball; it goes to the fundamentals of our system of self-government. As Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said in the final debate on the bill, “The long-term result is destruction of this democratic process.”

Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.

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