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Court upholds Kentucky’s Republican-drawn redistricting maps

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J. Tyler Franklin
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A court ruled against Democrats’ challenge to new political maps drawn by Kentucky’s Republican-led Legislature on Tuesday.

Democrats argued that lawmakers unconstitutionally altered districts in the state House of Representatives and U.S. Congress to benefit GOP candidates during the once-per-decade redistricting process earlier this year.

But, in a 72-page order, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate said the Kentucky Constitution doesn’t block lawmakers from taking politics into account when drawing the maps.

“Plaintiffs have made an admirable effort to prosecute their claims and successfully established at trial that [the redistricting bills] are partisan gerrymanders,” Wingate wrote. “However […] the Kentucky Constitution does not explicitly prohibit the General Assembly from making partisan considerations during the apportionment process.”

Wingate went on to say that “the Court must base its holding not on what is perceived as being most just or fair, but instead on what is provided for in the Kentucky Constitution.”

Following the implementation of the new maps, Republicans boosted their majorities in the Legislature from 75 to 80 of the seats in the 100-member House of Representatives and 30 to 31 seats in the 38-member Senate.

The Kentucky Democratic Party, Frankfort Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham and four Franklin County residents filed the lawsuit earlier this year, arguing that the maps violate the state constitution by splitting counties into multiple districts “without legitimate purpose” and more times than is necessary to create districts of roughly equal size.

They also argued the Kentucky Constitution’s provision ensuring “free and equal” elections requires elections “be free from excessive partisan gerrymanders.”

In a statement, Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge said, despite the ruling, the court affirmed the party’s argument that Republicans gerrymandered districts.

“As evidenced by Tuesday’s election, the Republican majority worked behind closed doors to draw districts that sliced up cities and counties for partisan gain to beat incumbents they couldn’t beat on a fair playing field. Their gerrymandering is wrong and disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians. Where the Kentucky Republican Party cannot win, they are using their supermajority to ensure the most Kentuckians with the least amount of power lose,” Elridge wrote.

The party didn’t respond to questions about whether they will appeal the ruling.

Kentucky Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process for the first time in state history this year. Before 2016, Democrats had been in control of at least one chamber in the Legislature or the governor’s office throughout the modern era.

The House map further divides several urban areas in the state and connects them with rural districts in surrounding areas. Democrats argued the plans dilute racial minorities’ political power in the state and make it harder for progressives to get elected.

The congressional map includes a strangely shaped 1st Congressional District that snakes from the western tip of the state up to Frankfort in central Kentucky. The move makes the 6th Congressional District more Republican friendly by excising Democrat-heavy Frankfort from its western flank.

Though Democrats have had limited success challenging gerrymandered maps in other parts of the country, Wingate ruled on Thursday that Kentucky doesn’t have such legal protections.

“The Court acknowledges that other states’ constitutions prohibit partisan gerrymandering or assign redistricting to a nonpartisan committee, but this Court’s concern is only with the Kentucky Constitution,” Wingate wrote.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne praised the ruling in a statement, saying the new maps “meet every legal and constitutional requirement.”

“These plans are the product of a committed effort to meet all considerations while maximizing every community’s influence to the greatest extent possible. Despite that commitment and the involvement of countless stakeholders in an extremely thorough process, there were those who chose to play politics with the situation and falsely claim the plans were unconstitutional,” Osborne wrote.

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Ryland is the state capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. Always looking to put a face to big issues,Ryland'sreporting has taken him to drought-weary towns in West Texas and relocated communities in rural China. He's covered breaking news like the 2014 shooting at Fort Hood Army Base and the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
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