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A game of chicken goes to court

All sides may lose in redistricting

By Walt Braun

At some point in the near future, a three-judge federal panel will release the maps that will set boundaries for legislative and congressional districts to be in place through 2020. When that happens, at least some (and perhaps all) factions of the deadlocked Kansas Legislature will discover that they would have been better off brokering a deal before the session ended than leaving the decision to the judges.

From Manhattan’s standpoint, the critical map is the one that will redraw Congressional boundaries. The city determined that its interests would be best served by remaining in the Second District, something that has always been considered geographically problematical given west-to-east population shifts and its place on the western frontier of the Second District. City and county representatives worked hard both during the session and in court to make the case that “community of interest” standards dictate Manhattan‘s continued presence in the Second District — a position with which this newspaper has fully and consistently concurred.

But that position was also buttressed by real-world political factors that do not exist when the question is transferred from the legislative to the judicial realm. One can only hope, but not be sure, that the judges will accept it.

More problematic from a statewide standpoint will be the judges’ decision with respect to redrawing of boundaries for the 40 state Senate districts. Here, given the deep and frankly poisoned divide that has separated Senate Republican conservatives from moderates and Democrats, the judges must choose from among three options. They can accept a map advocated by the conservatives, they can accept one drawn by the moderates, or they can start over and draw their own.

Taking either of the first two solutions runs the risk of appearing to position the judges on one side or the other of the political fight, a very good reason for them to exercise the third option. That solution would in turn be consequential for the candidacies of parties on all three sides of the debate in ways that are really too profound to enumerate. Just to take one example, would the court’s Senate map provide the deference commonly given in legislatively drawn maps to incumbents by not throwing two of them together in a single new district?

Given the absence of any statutory directive to that effect, there’s really no reason for the judges to care one way or another whether, for instance, the residences of conservative and moderate incumbents were regrouped into a single district, much less whether non-incumbent but declared candidates are included or excluded from particular districts.

Yet the reality of state politics is that those very decisions will impact the course of legislative policy in the state for the next decade.

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