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Missouri Supreme Court hears challenge to state Senate district map

The Missouri Supreme Court building on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2024, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Supreme Court building on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2024, in Jefferson City, Mo.

The Missouri Supreme Court must now decide if a directive in the state’s redistricting law that says cities and counties must be split as little as possible in legislative district maps allows them to be split at all.

In the first case testing provisions added to the Missouri Constitution in 2020, the court on Thursday was asked to reject a state Senate map that splits Buchanan County in western Missouri and Hazelwood in St. Louis County.

Attorney Chuck Hatfield, arguing for voters who are challenging the map, said there is no reason for either split. The 2020 revisions, he told the court, provide the “most objective criteria yet” for establishing districts and remove most opportunities for gerrymandering districts to favor one political party.

“It is still an inherently political process, but it is shaped now by clear boundaries,” Hatfield said.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Lanahan, defending the current maps, said the districts being challenged are constitutional because they promote compact districts. Hatfield is trying to reverse constitutional priorities, she said, to elevate keeping cities and counties whole above other considerations.

That, she said, would open other districts up for challenges.

For example, Lanahan said, there are several districts in the state’s most populous counties that could be challenged for exceeding the 1% limit on variance.

“You are treating counties that are bigger differently than the rest of the state,” she said.

Missouri Supreme Court Judges Kelly Broniec, left, and Robin Ransom listen to arguments Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in in a case over state Senate redistricting in Jefferson City.
David Lieb
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Pool Photo
Missouri Supreme Court Judges Kelly Broniec, left, and Robin Ransom listen to arguments Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in in a case over state Senate redistricting in Jefferson City.

Hatfield is appealing a September decision by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem that found the districts meet constitutional muster.

After Thursday’s hearing, Hatfield said he would like a quick decision. Filing for state offices opens Feb. 27.

“We would like to get those districts in place,” he said.

The districts for the 163-member House and 34-member Senate are revised every 10 years after a census. Since the 1960s, bipartisan citizen commissions have been responsible for redrawing the district boundaries, with a commission composed of appeals court judges taking over the job when the citizens commissions cannot agree.

For the current districts, the House Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission was able to agree on a map but the Senate commission was not. The map being challenged in court was produced by a judicial commission.

In 2018, an initiative petition called Clean Missouri changed the criteria for the commissions to consider, elevating partisan fairness as a consideration along with traditional criteria such as equal populations in compact and contiguous districts.

The 2020 changes were pushed by Republicans worried the 2018 plan would erode their majorities. It set the maximum deviation in population at 1%, with an exception that districts that do not cross political subdivision or natural boundaries could be up to 3% different from the ideal population.

Under older rules, Senate districts had to be made up of whole counties unless there was enough population for an entire district within a county. There was no such rule for the House, and in the district map produced after the 2010 census, six of the 82 counties that have fewer than an ideal number of residents for a single district were split among three or more districts.

Now, no county that is less than the ideal population is split more than once in the House. In the case before the court, Hatfield is arguing that the Senate map should have no splits in counties with a population less than a full district.

Attorney Chuck Hatfied, left, argues his case challenging the Missouri Senate district map as Assistant Attorney General Maria Lanahan takes notes on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, before the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.
David Lieb
/
Pool Photo
Attorney Chuck Hatfied, left, argues his case challenging the Missouri Senate district map as Assistant Attorney General Maria Lanahan takes notes on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, before the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.

One new idea included in the 2020 revisions was that only people living in a district could challenge it as violating the constitution.

In the case a resident of Hazelwood and a resident of Buchanan County wanted Beetem to redraw the lines for 13th and 14th districts in St. Louis County and to revise the boundaries of the 12th, 21st and 34th districts in northwest Missouri. The plan Hatfield submitted to Beetem would have put all of Buchanan County in the 12th District, shift a portion of Clay County from the 21st to the 34th District and shift eight small population counties from the 12th District to the 21st.

Hatfield’s proposal would put Hazelwood entirely within the 13th District and shift other small cities and unincorporated territory into the 14th.

Half the Senate is elected every two years, with odd-numbered districts on the ballot this year.

The case created a rift between House and Senate Republicans. The House Republican Campaign Committee filed an amicus brief supporting the challenge, and the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, the political arm of Senate Republicans, backed Beetem’s ruling.

During arguments, the judges sought to clarify which of the provisions of the constitution are more important than others in crafting the maps. They must sort out what lawmakers meant from clauses that cross-reference each other

Judge W. Brent Powell questioned whether residents of a split county or city get adequate representation.

“It really decreases the voice from Buchanan County,” Powell said. “Isn’t that what we are trying to protect?”

If maintaining whole counties and cities was the top priority, Lanahan said, lawmakers would have listed it higher in the constitutional language.

Hatfield told the court that maintaining whole counties and cities gives citizens a louder voice in government.

“That is the real value,” he said, “making sure that a community has one representative and knows who it is.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Rudi Keller