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Judge signals he will dismiss challenge to congressional districts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2011 - After listening to almost two hours of debate over Missouri's redrawn congressional districts, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Richard Green observed, "I certainly think the (critics) have a political quarrel with these maps."

But Green also made clear that he didn't think they had a constitutional beef -- signaling that he will likely side with the new districts' supporters.

The judge asked the lawyers supporting the new map -- led by Jim Layton, a lawyer with the Missouri attorney general's office -- to draw up a suggested order for dismissing the opponents' suits that seek to have the district maps' redrawn.

Green indicated that he would likely sign such an order.

St. Louis lawyer Gerry Greiman, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by Green's expected decision. As a result, opponents want Green to sign the dismissal order quickly so they can swiftly file an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court.

"We will appeal almost immediately," Greiman said.

Layton declined comment, other than to smile as he left the courtroom with Eddie Greim, the Kansas City lawyer for the two chief architects of the new Missouri congressional map that takes effect with the 2012 election. They are state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville.

During today's hearing, Greim told the judge that accusations that the statewide map reflects partisan gerrymandering may well be true. But he cited previous cases elsewhere where judges have ruled that partisan considerations are allowed, when drawing a congressional boundary map.

"We know (gerrymandering) is not unconstitutional," Greim said. The only debate is "was there too much?"

In the United States, he continued, elections are "winner take all." So it was fair for Republicans controlling the General Assembly to draw pro-Republican districts.

One of the partners for the law firm employing Greim is Todd Graves, the brother of U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, whose 6th District is among the ones that critics are hoping to redraw.

Greiman, speaking on behalf of map opponents, argued that there had, indeed, been too much politics involved in drawing up the map. He contended that it was ridiculous to see a map where the new 3rd District extends from suburban St. Louis to more than half way to Kansas City.

He said the map also violates Missouri Constitution's mandate for compactness in drawing districts and ignores the rights of many voters.

Joining Greiman was lawyer Jamie Barker Landes, who represented Kansas City Republicans who also have filed suit challenging the congressional map. Their separate suit recently was combined by the judge with an earlier, broader suit filed by Greiman on behalf of St. Louis area Democrats.

Landes told the judge that her clients weren't concerned about the gerrymandering argument. Their concern was that the map, in their view, protected congressional incumbents — notably Sam Graves and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City. Some of Landes' clients are longtime political rivals of both members of Congress.

The overarching theme in both suits, but mentioned little in today's hearing, was that Kansas City and St. Louis voters were being harmed by a new congressional map that appeared to favor rural political interests over urban and suburban voters.

The initial broader suit, filed by Greiman in September, focuses primarily on the changes in the St. Louis area that critics contend will cut the region's congressional representation.

The chief argument centers on the new map's elimination of the largely urban 3rd District now represented by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, because the state loses one of its now-nine congressional districts.

(The current 9th District, which is largely rural, was redrawn to take in some St. Louis suburbs and will be renamed as the 3rd.)

Greiman noted during the hearing that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, had vetoed the map. His veto was overturned by Republicans who voted as a bloc in the state Senate and House, where the GOP has huge edges. In the House, Greiman noted four Democrats provided the final necessary votes to override; those legislators have said they were asked to do so by Cleaver and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.

Greiman's suit also cites other newly drawn districts around the state. It mentions the Kansas City area's 5th District, but primarily to back up its contention that legislators improperly gerrymandered the existing urban districts by cutting them up and parceling out portions into many parts of districts that otherwise are primarily rural.

Kansas City Republicans Claim Map is Bipartisan Conspiracy

The Kansas City suit, filed just last month, zeroes in on the 5th District, now represented by Cleaver, and the somewhat neighboring 6th District, held by Graves.

The suit filed by Landes noted the irregular lines of both districts in the Kansas City area, which she implied were drawn in such a way to curb the political fortunes of rivals to Cleaver or Graves.

(Layton conceded in his argument to the judge that some of the 5th District's new boundary lines are "problematic.")

More broadly, both suits allege that the new map improperly seeks to protect eight incumbent members of Congress, including all six current Republicans, by ignoring what was best for voters.

"In the Fifth and Sixth Districts, the Map achieves its purposes through extreme instances of bipartisan gerrymandering, among other constitutional deficiencies," the Kansas City suit says.

"The most egregious aspect of the Map is the newly drawn Fifth District, which splits Jackson County among two districts and combines the highly urban portion of Jackson County with three primarily rural counties - Ray, Lafayette and Saline Counties - that extend 100 miles to the east," the suit continues.

"Moreover, the Map carves out a teardrop-shaped area of Jackson County and places it in the Sixth District, which otherwise is north of the Missouri River. The Fifth District has not previously crossed the Missouri River. ... The net effect of the new Fifth District is to dilute the urban areas of Jackson County with the unrelated rural areas of Lafayette, Ray, and Saline counties..."

The suit also complains that the city of Lee's Summit, which has almost 92,000 residents, is split between the two districts.

Diehl and Rupp have argued in their own court filings that it's the job of the General Assembly, not the judges, to redraw the congressional maps -- and that the new map is fair, even if it does admittedly favor Republican incumbents.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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