Kentucky Democrats lost an initial round Thursday in their legal fight challenging the new Republican-drawn boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the congressional and state House maps crafted by the GOP-dominated legislature early this year did not violate the state constitution.
Wingate’s long-awaited ruling came two days after Republicans increased their legislative supermajorities in the Midterm Election. Several Democratic state House members lost their reelection bids Tuesday after having Republican-friendlier territory tacked onto their districts.
In his opinion, Wingate wrote “there is no doubt” that the new boundaries amounted to “partisan gerrymanders.” But he added that Kentucky’s constitution “does not explicitly forbid the consideration of partisan interests in apportioning representation.”
Citing separation-of-power considerations, the judge said he would not “overstep the explicit role given to the judiciary in assessing the constitutionality of an apportionment scheme by delving into legislative motive.”
House Bill 2 set maps for state House districts, while Senate Bill 3 did so for the six congressional districts. Lawmakers passed both after overriding vetoes from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
The new maps were challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Democratic Party along with several individuals, including Democratic state Rep. Derrick Graham. The bills’ supporters have expressed confidence the new boundaries would hold up against the legal challenge.
The state Democratic Party did not immediately comment on whether it will appeal the ruling. But state Democratic Chair Colmon Elridge said in a statement that the court “clearly held there is ‘no doubt’ that the Republican supermajority engaged in partisan gerrymandering, where elected officials decided who their voters were instead of voters deciding on their elected officials.”
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron praised the ruling, saying: “We are pleased that the court recognized the constitutionality of these laws and the authority of Kentucky’s elected representatives in the General Assembly to create redistricting plans.”
Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne, also a Republican, said the ruling confirmed the redistricting plans met “every legal and constitutional requirement.”
Beshear, who is not a participant in the lawsuit, said the Democratic-held state House seats that flipped to the GOP came in districts that were “gerrymandered significantly and intentionally.”
“And I think if those districts had been run under the old map, that those individuals would have won,” the Governor said during his weekly news conference.
The lawsuit claims the once-a-decade mapmaking reflected “extreme partisan gerrymandering” in violation of the state constitution. It contends the state House map divided some of Kentucky’s most populated counties into multiple districts to “dilute the influence” of Democratic voters. The goal, it said, was to cement the GOP House supermajority and stifle dissent.
Wingate said Thursday that the court’s role is to determine “not whether partisan gerrymandering is morally wrong, but whether the Kentucky Constitution prohibits partisan gerrymandering.”
The judge concluded that the constitution “does not expressly prohibit partisan gerrymandering in redistricting and does not require the General Assembly to minimize the number of times that the required split counties are further divided.”
The changing boundaries stem from population changes in the past decade. Eastern and western Kentucky generally lost population, while central and northern sections gained more residents.
Criticism about the new congressional maps was mainly aimed at extending the oddly shaped 1st Congressional District to add Franklin County, which includes Democratic-leaning Frankfort in central Kentucky. The district, a GOP stronghold, is predominantly based in western Kentucky.
Wingate acknowledged Thursday that the 1st District’s boundaries were “unusual and not compact.” But he cited a prior ruling that “disclaimed that the esthetics of an apportionment scheme has any bearing on its constitutionality.”
Shifting Franklin County out of the GOP-held 6th District will likely make it more difficult for Democratic candidates in what has been a swing district.
On Tuesday, however, Democrats retained their hold on one Kentucky congressional seat — in the Louisville-area 3rd District, which was kept basically intact by Republican state lawmakers.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.