By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — The long, sometimes acrimonious fight over drawing new state legislative district maps in Kentucky may be about to end.
Attorneys for two sets of plaintiffs who had sued the legislature in federal court demanding the General Assembly pass constitutionally acceptable indicated Wednesday they will not file objections to the maps passed in last week’s special session.
“After having reviewed the recently enacted maps and consulting with our clients, we do not anticipate submitting formal objections to the court about the newly drawn districts,” said William Sharp, ACLU attorney.
An earlier email from Sharp to other attorneys, including those representing the northern Kentucky plaintiffs, indicated the decision was made following consultation among both sets of plaintiffs and their attorneys.
But they also said they wouldn’t seek to dismiss the suit because “other individuals/groups may yet attempt to intervene in this litigation . . .” according to Sharp’s earlier email.
Sharp also said it is unfortunate it took “two adverse court decisions” to persuade lawmakers to pass constitutionally acceptable maps.
Pierce Whites, general counsel for Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, said a motion to dismiss the suits “will be filed soon.”
“We know of no legitimate argument against the (latest) maps,” Whites said. “All of the legal issues raised by plaintiffs have been resolved. There is nothing more for the court to rule on.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, issued a statement through his spokeswoman: “It is our hope that the plaintiffs will recognize that the Senate map was developed and passed on sound legal theory and with total impartiality and from that point, we hope that they do not continue to pursue this action.”
Chris Wiest, one of the attorneys for the northern Kentucky plaintiffs, wouldn’t concede the latest maps are entirely acceptable but “we’re willing to live with them begrudgingly.”
Wiest said his clients will oppose any motion to dismiss the suits by Stumbo because they want to preserve the injunction against using the 2002 maps for any special elections.
He said there “have been some rumblings” as well that others might want to challenge the way the House maps splits Laurel County five ways, Hardin six, and other counties multiple ways and his clients might join any such action.
“But absent that, we’re probably done,” Wiest said.
Attempts to reach House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Ft. Thomas – who has previously challenged earlier redistricting maps – weren’t successful either.
In 2012, the General Assembly passed new legislative maps favoring incumbents in the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate and punishing minority legislators in both chambers.
But both maps were subsequently declared unconstitutional by state courts. While the House passed a new map for its districts this past spring, the Senate declined to act upon it and didn’t offer one of its own.
Subsequently, the two federal lawsuits were filed and a Sept. 23 trial date was set by the federal panel. That prompted Gov. Steve Beshear to call a special session for last week to pass new, constitutionally appropriate maps.
Then on Friday before the session convened, the federal judges declared the previous maps based on the 2000 Census unconstitutional and prohibited their use in any future election.
But leadership of both the Democratic-controlled House and Republican Senate offered maps much less partisan and punitive to the minority than they had previously.
Stivers consulted with Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, and produced a map which pitted no incumbents against another or moved an incumbent out of his or her district.
Stumbo and Democrats offered a House map which Hoover called “a fairer plan” and “a step in the right direction.” The plan paired four Democrats against Democratic incumbents and four Republicans against Republican incumbents. Previous Democratic plans paired as many as 11 Republicans.
The two maps passed both chambers last Friday on bi-partisan margins, by a vote of 35-2 in the Senate and 79-18 in the House.
There were still some issues which prompted debate during the special session. One Senate district has a population 6.75 percent below the ideal. Previous court rulings have said districts should not deviate from the ideal size by more than plus or minus 5 percent.
Stivers, however, said the map is constitutionally defensible because that deviation made it possible to avoid dividing counties, precincts or pitting incumbents together.
House Republicans complained the House map “packs” Republican districts by exceeding the ideal size but falling just below the 5 percent deviation. And Republicans and affected Democrats alike criticized the carving up of Laurel and Hardin counties.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.