In ruling that the legislative redistricting plan lawmakers approved in January was unconstitutional because it split too many counties and strayed too far from the principle of "one person, one vote," Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd noted various considerations that "militate in favor of giving greater weight to population equality than county integrity when those values clash, as they inevitably do. Those considerations, however, must be addressed to the Kentucky Supreme Court, not to a trial court that is required to apply the binding precedent ..."
Thursday, in a full opinion explaining why it previously issued an order upholding Shepherd's ruling, the Supreme Court stuck with the precedent requiring legislative redistricting plans to split the minimum number of counties possible while creating districts that vary no more than 5 percent (plus or minus) from the ideal district population.
However, the court did have a suggestion for the General Assembly: "If the legislature is displeased with our interpretation, it is, of course, free to pursue a constitutional amendment ... with the people of the commonwealth."
Sounds like a good idea. In an era when cities and their suburbs form metropolitan areas encompassing multiple counties, the existing constitutional language on maintaining county integrity in redistricting is overly restrictive and serves as a barrier to the more compelling goal of creating districts as equal in population as possible.
But lawmakers should not use the need for more flexibility in splitting counties as an excuse for giving a constitutional seal of approval to their most egregious gerrymandering instincts, as an amendment that passed the Senate during the recent General Assembly would have done.
If the House had gone along with the Senate on Senate Bill 18, combining non-contiguous counties in a single district by connecting them with a narrow strip of land and renumbering districts to make it impossible for incumbent lawmakers to seek re-election would become constitutional rights for the majority parties in each chamber of the General Assembly.
In the redistricting plan thrown out by the courts, House Democrats engaged in the former mischief in redrawing some Republican districts, while Senate Republicans tried to oust Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein by means of the latter deviltry.
Flexibility in splitting counties may be needed in redistricting, but constitutionally approved mischief and deviltry certainly aren't.