Kansas City, Kan. — The energy in the room, Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper said, was akin to the moment right before a horse race.
“Right here is all that nerves and adrenaline,” he told a packed courtroom Monday.
Moments later, the gates opened and the competitors were off in a case that is set to determine Kansas’ political landscape for the next 10 years.
Lawyers presented opening arguments Monday in a legal challenge to the newly enacted, GOP-authored Congressional maps. The tussle over the district lines, enacted over the veto of Gov. Laura Kelly, will likely head all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court in the weeks to come, with whatever ruling Klapper makes all-but-certain to be appealed.
But first, it must begin in a wood-paneled room here, whose small size belied its importance. The evidence laid out by both sides in the case will shape the eventual high court ruling.
Susan Wagle video key piece of early evidence
Lawyers representing a host of plaintiffs in three separate cases hued to their principal argument that the maps violate the Kansas Constitution.
The challenges, filed on behalf of 16 residents in Wyandotte, Johnson and Douglas counties, contend that the maps illegally divide the Kansas City area, splitting communities of color in the process. The maps, they say, were passed with the express purpose of boosting Republicans and securing the defeat of Kansas’ lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Sharice Davids.
Abha Khanna, attorney with the Elias Law Group, who represents plaintiffs in one of the cases, echoed those arguments, presenting a video of former Senate President Susan Wagle telling a group of Wichita-area Republicans her counterparts in the Legislature should draw four Republican districts.
The districts, Khanna argued, were “a dramatic departure” from the 2012 maps, drawn by a three-judge panel in federal court. The 2nd Congressional District, for instance, was rectangular but now sprawled out across eastern Kansas.
The move, she continued, was designed specifically to harm minority and youth voters, as well as Democrats and ignored the Legislature’s own guidelines — though the degree to which lawmakers should be bound by those rules is in dispute in the case, as supporters of the maps argue they are not legally binding.
“Plaintiffs had one clear objective: to draw a map that maximized their partisan gain,” Khanna said.
While most of the witnesses brought by the map’s opponents dealt in the technical details of the map-drawing process, Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, outlined what he considered to be the political motivations behind the legislature’s redistricting process.
In testimony, Corson called the way the maps were passed to be “thuggish,” referring indirectly to a purported deal between Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, to ensure the Kansas Senate was able to override Kelly’s veto on the maps.
“I think the process really heaped a lot of shame and discredit on the legislature,” Corson said. “I think Kansans were very poorly served.”
Corson argued an effort to hold a series of redistricting town halls statewide was nothing more than “checking a box” for Republicans, and argued the fact that the maps were introduced and passed in the Senate in less than a week was a sign of a broken process.
The exchanges lead to the plaintiffs introduced a still photo of three GOP senators on their phones as evidence of their purported ambivalence towards the redistricting tour.
“It was frankly one of the more disrespectful acts I’ve ever seen from elected officials towards the public,” Corson said of his Republican colleagues behavior during the 10 stop tour in August.
Tony Rupp argues that Wyandotte, Johnson counties exceeded numbers
But Tony Rupp, a private practice attorney representing the state in the redistricting suit, said the decisions were born out of a reality that Wyandotte and Johnson counties could not be kept together.
Wagle’s comments, he said, were nothing more than a distraction.
During his questioning of Corson, Rupp noted the Democratic senator, who also invoked her comments, had never even met Wagle and that she had no role in crafting the maps.
But voters, he said, did make a conscious decision to install a Republican supermajority in Topeka to craft policy, including map-drawing.
“Kansas voters have not voted Republicans out of office — they’ve voted majorities in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature,” he said.
Population growth in the region meant the two counties combined were above the maximum number of residents allowed in a single Congressional district.
The manner the Legislature chose to address this, he said, was reasonable. He pointed to analysis run by an expert witness for the plaintiffs, saying Davids still had a 62% chance of winning her seat.
For Klapper or the high court to intervene under the constitution, he argued, would be an improper interference with the legislative process.
“Stay out of the political thicket,” Rupp implored Klapper during his opening statement. “And do not disenfranchise the elected representatives elected in the state of Kansas to do what the U.S. Constitution requires and places into the hands of the state legislature.”
But a series of political scientists brought by the map’s opponents disputed the assertion that the maps were a common-sense response to a series of problems, including a need to keep the core parts of the 2012 maps intact, as well as a desire to avoid splitting counties.
Jowei Chen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, performed a series of computer simulations, where a preprogrammed algorithm drew 1,000 maps, and compared them to the final product enacted by the legislature.
While he noted it is eminently possible for a Democrat to win the new 3rd Congressional District, the new boundaries were still more Republican than all of the computer-drawn maps he reviewed. It also was “drawn in a way that dilutes the minority voters” in the district, a core legal argument of the plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Congressional District was firmly Republican under the new lines. Most of Chen’s simulations argued it should be more competitive, to the point where Democrats could periodically have two members in Congress.
The product drafted by Republicans, he said repeatedly, was an “extreme partisan bias” in a manner that favored Republicans.
“It gives Republicans as much of an advantage as possible,” Chen said.
Defendants spent time assailing the usefulness of Chen and Stanford University professor Jonathan Rodden, with attorney Gary Ayers at one point calling Chen’s report “misleading.”
Those defending the maps said the reports run by the two experts missed several key points, including the fact the new 2nd Congressional District had a roughly similar percentage of minority voters as the old 3rd Congressional District, even though the new 3rd district saw a decline in voters of color.
Still, Rodden said Republicans should have had no trouble producing a product that was far superior in meeting their stated criteria.
“It is rather easy to do these things,” he said of drawing maps in Kansas that were compact and preserved voter groups who are bound together by social, cultural or economic factors.
“The plan enacted by the Legislature seems to abide by a different logic,” he continued. “It does not emerge from the traditional criteria.”
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 443-979-6100.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas redistricting map trial starts, likely headed to Supreme Court