Topeka A Republican precinct committee member filed a federal lawsuit Thursday over the Kansas Legislature's failure so far to redraw the state's political boundaries and suggested federal judges could impose new maps similar to ones favored by GOP conservatives.
Robyn Renee Essex, a resident of the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, argues in the lawsuit that the state's existing political boundaries violate her constitutional rights because they haven't been adjusted yet to account for changes in population during the past decade.
Essex is a Republican precinct committeewoman for the 1st Ward, 9th Precinct in Olathe. Her husband, Steve Essex, is the precinct committeeman. One of Essex's attorneys, Brent Haden, of Columbia, Mo., is a former chief of staff to Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.
Democrats and moderate Republican legislators said the lawsuit was premature, given lawmakers still are working in Topeka. They also questioned the motives.
"The fact that the speaker's former chief of staff is the plaintiff's attorney certainly leads to a great deal of speculation that this is an orchestrated effort that may have the implicit support of the governor and the speaker," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
Messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment from Essex were not immediately returned. Haden, meanwhile, insisted Essex was his client and no others were involved with the lawsuit.
"I represent Robyn Essex, private citizen, who lives in a district that is unconstitutionally big," Haden said.
The lawsuit names Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state's chief elections officer, as the defendant. Legislators have been told by Kobach and others that the maps need to be completed by May 11 and sent to the courts for approval to avoid delaying the June filing deadline and Aug. 7 primary.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback hadn't seen the lawsuit, but said it was late in the session for legislators to be finishing the maps without affecting the primary.
"I hope we can still get it done in that fashion instead of going through court," he said.
In the lawsuit, Essex expressed doubt legislators will be able to break a stalemate on redistricting. She suggests one option would be for a panel of three federal judges to set new legislative and congressional districts. Essex submitted maps for Senate and congressional districts for the court to implement, including a variation of one the House redistricting committee will consider Friday. O'Neal is chairman of that committee.
O'Neal said Thursday he wasn't aware of the lawsuit or who was involved prior to its filing.
"We knew that there were people looking at doing something," he said.
Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican and attorney, said the mechanics of filing a lawsuit suggest it had been planned for several weeks.
"I think it is a piece of their planned strategy all along. You don't just draft and file a lawsuit like that on the spur of the moment," Vratil said.
Senators approved a map redrawing their districts Tuesday on a 21-19 vote, which collapsed a district in western Kansas and created a new one in Johnson County. The House rejected the map Wednesday because, among other reasons, the new boundaries in western Kansas diluted minority votes.
That map would have pitted GOP incumbent Sen. Garrett Love of Montezuma against Democrat Sen. Allen Schmidt of Hays in the new western Kansas district.
The underlying issue in the standoff between the two chambers has been Republican infighting, specifically conservative House incumbents who have filed to challenge moderate Senate leaders in the August primary. Initial Senate maps were drawn that excluded the challengers from the incumbents' districts.
The map Essex is proposing would force those GOP primaries, as well as force Democratic incumbents into more GOP-friendly districts in northeast Kansas.
Legislators have expected the redistricting differences to ultimately land the process in state or federal court. The Senate has appropriated $500,000 to hire attorneys to defend its actions, while the House has included $2 million in its budget.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, questioned whether any of that money would end up going to the plaintiff's attorney should Essex prevail. He said it was a "suspicious coincidence" that O'Neal's former staffer was the attorney.