Judge tosses new boundaries for state legislative districts

jbrammer@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2012 

FRANKFORT — A judge has declared Kentucky's newly drawn legislative districts unconstitutional and has ordered election officials to use previous district lines in this year's state legislative elections.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on Tuesday tossed out boundaries that lawmakers approved and Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law last month. The ruling was a victory for House Republicans and Democratic state Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, who challenged the constitutionality of House Bill 1.

Shepherd also extended the filing deadline for legislative candidates to 4 p.m. Friday, which gives legislative leaders time to decide whether to appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The ruling said HB 1 is unconstitutional because it allows some districts to vary by more than 5 percent from the ideal population size and divides more counties into separate legislative districts than necessary.

The House redistricting plan in HB 1 split 28 counties and 246 precincts, although only 22 counties have more than the roughly 43,000 people that each district must contain. A GOP proposal would have split 24 counties and 10 precincts.

Also, Shepherd said the Senate's decision to move Stein's 13th District in central Lexington to northeastern Kentucky is "a substantial question of law" that merits "full adjudication" in the courts. Shepherd said he was not aware of any "controlling legal authority" on whether the move, which would have left much of Lexington represented by Democratic Sen. Dorsey Ridley of Henderson, was constitutional.

His order returns Stein's district to Lexington and Ridley's district to far Western Kentucky.

"Until the General Assembly passes redistricting legislation that complies with all applicable constitutional requirements to revise the districts (under state law), the elections for the House and Senate shall be conducted with the legislative district boundaries in effect immediately prior to the enactment of House Bill 1 for the both the House of Representatives and the Senate," Shepherd said in an 18-page order.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Tuesday evening that the Democratic-controlled House "would like to see it go to the Supreme Court as quickly as possible."

Lourdes Baez-Schrader, a spokeswoman for Senate Republican leadership, said Senate leaders were meeting with lawyers, and "nothing has been decided."

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was a defendant in the House GOP lawsuit, said the office was consulting with attorneys about how to proceed.

Scott White, an attorney for Stein, said he hopes lawmakers "will go back and get the redistricting right."

"If they appeal, we will continue to fight for a constitutional district in Lexington," White said.

Stein said she was "quite pleased" with Shepherd's ruling and called HB 1 "the disenfranchisement of over 113,000 voters in Fayette County that does not comport with democracy."

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Republicans were "obviously very pleased with the judge's decision."

Shepherd's ruling motivated some retiring lawmakers to change their mind and seek re-election in districts as they were drawn for the last 10 years. Those included Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, who filed to run for Senate District 27, and Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, who filed to run for District 37.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years to reflect population changes in the U.S. Census. In 1994, the Kentucky Supreme Court outlined requirements for redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts. The issue was revisited in a 1997 case that dealt with splitting counties.

The debate over legislative redistricting has taken up much time in this year's General Assembly. Tuesday was the 23rd day of the 60-day session, and some major issues, like Gov. Beshear's plan to introduce a constitutional amendment to expand gambling, have been put on hold.

Lawmakers generally do not like to vote on controversial issues until they know who their opponents will be in elections.

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