Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Redistricting panel rejects arguments from Kobach, allows more intervenors

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

A panel of three federal judges Monday rejected arguments from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and allowed a host of plaintiffs into a lawsuit over the Legislature's failure to redraw legislative and congressional political boundaries.

The outcome of the lawsuit could have a big impact on Lawrence, which has been at the center of some of the redistricting disputes in the Legislature.

Kobach wanted to limit those allowed to intervene in the case, voicing concerns that accepting more plaintiffs might prolong the case and prevent him and other election officials from making deadlines in the run up to the Aug. 7 primaries. He said his most immediate concern was getting ballots mailed to military personnel deployed overseas.

But U.S. District Court judges — Kathryn Vratil, Mary Beck Briscoe and John Lungstrum — pushed back hard, saying that while they understood the urgency of the situation, they didn't want to be rushed and they wanted to hear input from various sources.

"I'm really troubled by this line of argument," said Vratil, the presiding judge of the panel. "I think the people of Kansas deserve better," than to have redistricting "ramrodded," she said. She also said to Kobach, "It seems like you are trying to restrict the information that's coming to us ."

Kobach said many of the people seeking plaintiff status had preferred district boundaries based on politics, but the judges said they at least wanted to hear their opinions.

At one point, Kobach said he was concerned that if more plaintiffs were involved, then attorneys might start seeking fees from the state in the case.

Lungstrum shot back, "That is a very weak argument. That is truly the tail wagging the dog." He said if awarding attorney fees was appropriate, the judges will grant them, and if not, they won't.

Kobach also brought up the death of state Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden, who died in a car wreck just hours after the end of the legislative session on Sunday. Kobach said without a quick resolution of district boundaries, officials in Bethell's district will have to meet a couple of times to pick a replacement. Lungstrum said that as a former county political official, he didn't think that would be a problem.

Greg Musil, one of several attorneys representing different groups of voters, argued for intervenor status, telling the judges, "This is historic, and it (the decision on district boundaries) will last for 10 years. It's more important to get it right than to get it fast."

After hearing arguments for an hour, the judges recessed for 15 minutes and returned, saying they were unanimous in allowing at least 13 individuals who had filed for intervenor status to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Testimony in the case is expected to take at least two days, May 29-30. Further proceedings may occur June 4-6.

Among those allowed to participate in the case are U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, whose 3rd congressional district includes eastern Douglas County; state Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, who was chair of the Senate redistricting committee; and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, who was the ranking Democrat on the House redistricting committee.

Legislators adjourned Sunday but were unable to agree on new district lines as conservative and moderate Republicans were locked in a bitter political battle.

In congressional redistricting, the state Senate had adopted a map that would have placed Lawrence wholly in the 2nd U.S. House District. Lawrence is currently divided between the 2nd and 3rd districts.

The House rejected that map and approved one dividing Lawrence between the 1st, which includes western Kansas and much of central Kansas, and 2nd districts. That plan was opposed by Lawrence legislators and U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, who represents the 1st. The proposal never gained traction in the Senate.

Conservative and moderate Republicans fought mostly over state Senate maps. The conservative House supported proposals that gave conservative Republicans a chance to take control of the Senate, while moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Senate formed a coalition to reject those efforts.

At least 15 attorneys were present at Monday's hearing, and several legislators, including state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, who is challenging Owens in the GOP primary.

The three-judge panel indicated it would use the computer software that legislators used to devise maps, and would also work with legislative staff.

After the hearing, Kobach was asked if he thought the legal proceedings would delay the primary. "It's too early to tell," he said.