Olathe Republican sues over redistricting

A Republican precinct committee member from Olathe filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court over the Kansas Legislature’s failure so far to redraw the state’s political boundaries.

The committee member, Robyn Renee Essex, suggested federal judges could impose new maps similar to ones favored by GOP conservatives.

Essex 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 population changes in 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 he 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 that 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 today. O’Neal is chairman of that committee.

O’Neal said Thursday that he wasn’t aware of the lawsuit or who was involved before 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.