Judges will now draw Kansas political districts

Now it’s federal judges who are racing the clock.

With the Aug. 7 primary election looming, a panel of federal judges will try to do in a few weeks what the Kansas Legislature couldn’t in three months: draw new election districts.

The three judges — Kathryn Vratil, Mary Beck Briscoe and John Lungstrom of U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., — on Wednesday concluded a two-day hearing that examined the Legislature’s unsuccessful efforts to redraw election districts for Congress, the state House and Senate, and the Board of Education.

The Legislature met for 99 days and couldn’t come up with district maps to account for population shifts reflected in the latest census. As a result, the court is doing the job.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach told the judges that the upcoming primary should be delayed until Aug. 14 if they can’t draw new maps by the week of June 14-20.

But Kobach, the state’s chief elections officer, warned that scheduling a primary after Aug. 14 would be difficult because the start of school could hinder efforts to identify polling sites.

The panel assured the dozens of lawyers and legislators who packed a Kansas City, Kan., courtroom that it would move expeditiously.

“There’s nothing on our docket which has higher attention at this point,” Chief Judge Vratil said.

After hearing about 14 hours of testimony, numerous issues emerged that the judges will have to address, including:

• Will Johnson County get an eighth state Senate district? Population figures suggest the county should have 7.66 senators, a point that Lungstrom noted in asking why the county couldn’t settle for just part of a Senate district, and not a totally new one. Lungstrom pointed out that adding a new district would cost another area some representation.

• Will Leavenworth County get a Senate district of its own? Officials have complained that they’re one of the six biggest counties in the state but don’t have their own Senate seat.

• Is more representation possible within the Olathe city limits? A lawyer for one civic leader argued that the city should have at least one state senator and five state representatives.

• What will happen to the proposed map of Senate districts that carves three conservative Republican challengers out of districts represented by three moderate Republicans? Will conservative Rep. Greg Smith still be in a district with moderate incumbent Sen. Tim Owens of Overland Park?

Conservative Republicans in the House accused the Senate of rigging its own districts to help moderate Republicans. Yet, a judge suggested that the House-approved plan for Senate districts seemed to be designed to punish Democrats.

The judges’ decision could influence this summer’s primaries and help decide which Republican faction controls the Senate and the future of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative agenda.

• Will the judges redraw a map of House districts that was approved by the House and the Senate, but could not win final approval?