Court ruling creates turmoil in special legislative session on redistricting

jbrammer@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2013 

FRANKFORT — A special lawmaking session to redraw state legislative districts started Monday with high hopes that it would end Friday with bipartisan agreement, but a complex legal ruling brought turmoil on the first day.

It's uncertain whether a federal court order entered last Friday could drag the session out beyond an expected five days, at a cost to taxpayers of $60,000 a day.

A panel of three federal judges ruled that the state could no longer use legislative district lines drawn in 2002, declaring them unconstitutional. With the 2002 boundaries tossed, it's not clear what geographic lines election officials would use in the event of a special election to fill a vacant seat, said lawyers for House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

Pierce Whites, general counsel for Stumbo, said during a conference call Monday that the court should alter its order to say that the 2002 district boundaries should remain only in the case of a special election between now and November 2014.

Whites said Kentucky law is very clear in its requirement that any special election to fill a vacant legislative seat must be held in the same specific geographic area as the original election.

If the three-judge panel does not modify its order, the House might have to put an emergency clause on its House redistricting plan, which means the newly passed legislative lines would take effect immediately.

A bill carrying an emergency clause must win approval from a constitutional majority of the House, which is 51 of its 100 members. Regular bills can pass with a simple majority, which can be as few as 40 votes, depending on how many lawmakers vote on the bill.

The impact of the court's ruling "infringes on the bright line of separation required by the Kentucky and federal constitution," Whites wrote in a brief before the court.

The House is scheduled to take a vote on its redistricting bill at 10 a.m. Wednesday. But as of Monday night, leaders did not know whether the bill would need an emergency clause.

The three-judge panel allowed other attorneys involved in the case to file responses by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a group of Northern Kentucky residents sued the state earlier this year for failing to pass a redistricting plan that reflects population shifts in the 2010 U.S. Census.

The House and Senate approved redistricting maps in 2012, but that plan was later declared unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

If lawmakers fail to approve a constitutional redistricting plan in its special session, the three-judge panel has said it will redraw the boundaries for legislative districts.

Lawyers for the ACLU and Northern Kentucky residents argued Monday that they should have time to address the issues raised Monday in the House Democrats' motion.

Chris Wiest, an attorney for the Northern Kentucky residents, said some previous court rulings suggest that any special election could be held "at-large," meaning everyone in the state could vote in the special election.

House Democrats dismissed the idea, calling it unrealistic, costly and contrary to previous court rulings.

Meanwhile Monday, one of four House Democratic incumbents who would face another incumbent in a proposed House redistricting plan presented an option that might keep him and his opponent in the legislature.

House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, who lives in Boyd County, said he is considering moving into the newly proposed 99th District of Elliott, Rowan and Lewis counties.

The redistricting plan that House Democratic leaders unveiled last week pairs two sets of Democratic incumbents: Adkins and Kevin Sinnette of Ashland in the 100th District, made up of Elliott, Rowan and Lewis counties, and John Will Stacy of West Liberty and Hubert Collins of Wittensville in the 97th District, made up of Johnson, Morgan and Wolfe counties.

Adkins said the House plan is balanced and fair. He said northeastern Kentucky lost population, making it difficult to put a map together for that area of the state.

His old 99th District of Boyd, Lawrence, Elliott and Rowan counties, he said, was put into three districts under the new plan.

"In doing that, there is an open seat of Elliott, Rowan and Lewis counties," Adkins said.

He said he was raised in Elliott County, played basketball at Morehead State University in Rowan County and has "a lot of friends in Lewis County."

Moving to the new 99th District is "an option I have and will make a decision soon."

Sinnette said his main concern is to keep the 100th District in Boyd County. He said he plans to run in 2014 for the seat.

But, he said, "It's still early in the game, and a lot can happen between now and 2014."

Both Stacy and Collins have said they will run for the 97th House District seat in southeastern Kentucky. Collins, who has been in the legislature since 1991, said despite being pitted against Stacy, he will support the House Democratic plan.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he has not yet decided whether he'll support the House plan, but he said he thinks many Republicans will vote for it. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the chamber, 55-45.

"I think there will be some Republicans that will vote for it based on what they've seen before," Hoover said.

Many more incumbent Republicans were pitted against each other under a 2012 redistricting map that was later deemed unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

However, Hoover said many Republicans were concerned that Scott County and Georgetown had been split into three districts. Hoover said that was done to help former Democratic representative Charlie Hoffman, who lost the last two elections to Republican Rep. Ryan Quarles.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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