JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A state trial judge upheld Missouri's congressional redistricting map Friday, rejecting arguments that the districts failed to meet state constitutional requirements.
Two separate lawsuits challenged the state's new U.S. House map, asserting the districts are not sufficiently compact. Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green rejected the argument in a ruling Friday. However, that decision is unlikely to be the last because attorneys representing both legal challenges said they likely will appeal next week to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Time is running short for Missouri to settle on new legislative districts. Candidate filing currently starts Feb. 28, though state lawmakers could delay that if necessary.
Congressional districts are redrawn each decade based on the most recent census. Missouri is dropping from nine congressional districts to eight, because its population growth since 2000 did not keep pace with other states. The Republican-controlled Legislature enacted its redistricting map last year after overriding the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
The Missouri Constitution requires congressional districts be "composed of contiguous territory as compact and as nearly equal in population as may be."
In the ruling, Green said those challenging the new map suggested districts must be as compact "as can be." But he sided with attorneys defending the map, who had argued that perfect compactness is impossible. Green wrote he did not want a "never-ending game of one-upmanship in a constant search for the ultimate map."
"It is not possible in theory or practice to find the most compact map," Green said. "The evidence and facts showed that the futile search for the most compact map will; however, tend to severely limit the options left for the General Assembly in choosing its map. As a matter of fact, this would leave it little space to exercise its legislative discretion."
Gerry Greiman, an attorney representing one set of plaintiffs, said the decision was disappointing.
"The trial court's ruling is that `compact' is the same thing as `compact as may be,"' he said. "And we just think that's wrong. The phrase has to mean something."
Jamie Barker Landes, who represented the second group of challengers, said at least one district cannot be considered sufficiently compact under any definition. That lawsuit focuses largely on the 5th District covering much of Jackson County, along with several neighboring rural counties. A chunk of Jackson County was carved out and added to the 6th District that stretches across Missouri from Nebraska to Illinois.
The other legal challenge was funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust and objects several new districts. In addition to the Kansas City-area, it pointed to the 3rd District running from central Missouri to the St. Louis-area while reaching north and south of St. Louis city to touch the Mississippi River. It also raised concerns about the west-central 4th District and the 7th District in southwestern Missouri.
The new congressional map essentially spreads the seat of Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, of St. Louis, into adjoining districts. Democrats have argued the new map would give Republicans an advantage in six of the eight districts.
The map was defended by state Solicitor General James Layton and by a private attorney representing the chairmen of the state House and Senate redistricting committees. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a written statement the case presented difficult and novel legal issues and was likely to return to the state high court.
Rep. John Diehl, who led the House redistricting chairman, said he had thought the districts met constitutional requirements and was glad the judge confirmed that. Diehl, R-Town and Country, attended court hearings over the map.
The ruling Friday came after a three-day hearing this week and is the second time Green has rejected congressional redistricting challenges. He also turned down the lawsuits in December, but the Missouri Supreme Court last month ordered additional review over whether districts are compact. The high court noted questions could be raised about the compactness of several new districts, particularly the 5th and 3rd districts.
Wrangling over Missouri's new congressional districts is only part of the legal controversy surrounding the state's redistricting process. A separate lawsuit has challenged new districts for the state House, and the state Supreme Court has ordered redistricting efforts for the Senate to start from scratch after another legal challenge.
Boundaries for Missouri's 163-districts House and 34-district Senate are adjusted after the census to account for population shifts, such as growth in southwestern Missouri and outer St. Louis suburbs and declines in St. Louis County and city. A special judicial commission developed the state Legislature districts after bipartisan commissions could not reach agreement.
A court hearing over the new state House districts was scheduled for Friday, but Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce instead gave attorneys until Feb. 10 to submit written arguments. Joyce could rule on the case by mid-February.
That lawsuit was filed by more than a dozen people and contends the new Missouri House maps violates requirements that that districts have similar populations and be contiguous and compact. The lawsuit also contends that a special judicial panel that drew the map violated Missouri's open meetings law. The attorney general's office also is defending that map, though three Republican House members also have joined the case to defend the new districts.