Topeka Secretary of State Kris Kobach asked a federal court Wednesday to settle redistricting issues for the Kansas Legislature, as Republican senators who’ve feuded for weeks over new political boundaries scrambled to find a compromise ending their impasse.
Kobach made his request while responding to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court by Robyn Renee Essex, a Republican precinct committee member from Olathe. Kobach, the state’s chief elections official, is the only defendant in the case.
Kobach asked that the court have a panel of three judges either impose new lines for state Senate, state House, State Board of Education and congressional districts, saying his office “stands ready to submit valid plans.” Kobach, a former law professor, is a conservative Republican.
Conservative and moderate Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate have been locked in a bitter dispute over proposals to redraw the chamber’s districts to account for shifts in population over the past decade. Their fight has prevented passage of plans for redrawing any of the state’s other political boundaries, and the impasse threatens to delay the state’s Aug. 7 primary election.
Too little time
The redistricting battle is part of a fierce struggle over which Republican faction will control the Senate after this year’s elections. It’s also complicated by the involvement of the House, where GOP conservatives have a majority.
During a news conference after his court filing, Kobach said he’d propose maps to the federal judges, but he declined to discuss details. His filing came with a bill pending before the Senate to redraw the chamber’s 40 districts with boundaries favored by moderate Republicans and most Democrats.
Kansas election officials have until June 23 to distribute ballots to military personnel overseas if the state plans to have its primary on schedule. Kobach contends that legislators and the Kansas Supreme Court have too little time to approve and review legislative redistricting proposals.
‘No other choice’
Kobach noted that the Kansas Constitution gives the state’s highest court the power only to review plans approved by lawmakers. But, he noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal courts can adjust boundaries themselves.
“We are now proceeding on the litigation track because we have no other choice,” Kobach said during his news conference. “We will be asking the federal court to act with unusual and extraordinary speed.”
Essex also has asked the federal court to intervene, but an attorney representing her declined comment on Kobach’s filing.
The secretary of state said he’ll ask the three federal judges to impose new maps by June 4 — a week ahead of the state’s candidate filing deadline. But he said that if lawmakers can finish their work on redistricting this week, “This case can still be rendered moot.”
“I fervently hope that they do complete this job, because this task does not belong in court,” he said. “Time is very short.”
Tensions running high
The scramble by senators to find a compromise Wednesday came on the 95th day of the Legislature’s annual session — five more days than leaders had scheduled.
Tensions have been running high for weeks and frustrations boiled over during a Tuesday evening meeting of GOP senators. After being peppered with hostile questions from conservatives, Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, a moderate Overland Park Republican, abruptly left, declaring he wouldn’t “listen to this garbage.”
Owens and senators from both GOP factions were involved in Wednesday’s talks, along with Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. The Senate had planned to debate the redistricting bill Wednesday, but Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, was called away from the Statehouse on family business, aides said.
It wasn’t clear when the debate would be rescheduled. Senators involved in the talks said they were going slowly.
GOP conservatives believe the proposal before the Senate is designed to keep the chamber’s moderate Republicans in power and allow them to check conservative Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda. Many lawmakers believe alternatives offered by conservatives aim to help them oust the Senate’s current leaders.
The bill would draw three conservative Republican candidates out of districts where they’re challenging incumbent GOP senators. The measure also puts conservative Republican Sens. Steve Abrams of Arkansas City and Ty Masterson of Andover in the same district.
Masterson was not optimistic about work on a compromise.
“It appears to me to be so slow that it’s actually at a standstill,” he said.
Meanwhile, Owens said he assumes Kobach’s filing was designed to spur legislators to finish.
But Hensley said: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the chief election officer to get involved in what is, essentially, a legislative function.”