Kentucky Supreme Court upholds legislative, congressional boundaries passed by GOP-led legislature

Kentucky’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Republican-drawn boundaries for state House and congressional districts, rejecting Democratic claims that the majority party’s mapmaking amounted to gerrymandering in violation of the state’s constitution.

The court noted that an alternative proposal would have resulted in nearly the same lopsided advantage for Republicans in Kentucky House elections and would not have altered the GOP’s 5-1 advantage in U.S. House seats from the Bluegrass State.

The new district boundaries were passed by the GOP-dominated legislature over Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes in early 2022. The new maps were used in last year’s election.

The justices referred to redistricting as an “inherently political process” assigned to the legislature.

“An expectation that apportionment will be free of partisan considerations would thus not only be unrealistic, but also inconsistent with our constitution’s assignment of responsibility for that process to an elected political body,” Justice Angela McCormick Bisig wrote in the majority opinion.

The court concluded that the once-a-decade mapmaking did not violate Kentucky’s constitution. It upheld a lower court ruling that had concluded the new boundaries amounted to “partisan gerrymanders,” but said the constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid the consideration of partisan interests during redistricting.

The new maps were challenged by the state Democratic Party and several individuals, including Democratic state Rep. Derrick Graham. Their lawsuit contended the new boundaries reflected “extreme partisan gerrymandering” in violation of the state constitution. It claimed the state House map divided some counties into multiple districts to “dilute the influence” of Democratic voters.

With the new districts in effect in last November’s midterm election, Republicans increased their legislative supermajorities. Several Democratic state House members lost their reelection bids after having Republican-friendlier territory tacked onto their districts.

Democrats’ biggest objection to the redrawn congressional boundaries focused on an extension of the sprawling 1st Congressional District, situated mostly in western Kentucky, to include Franklin County, home of the capital city of Frankfort in central Kentucky.

The 1st District is represented by powerful Republican U.S. Rep. James Comer. Comer has been at the center of the House GOP’s impeachment inquiry of Democratic President Joe Biden as chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Comer and his wife have homes in Monroe and Franklin counties in Kentucky. They purchased the Franklin County home when he was state agriculture commissioner, when his work was based in Frankfort.

For decades, Democrats wielded complete control in setting legislative boundaries, and then shared that power once the GOP took control of the state Senate. Last year was the first time the legislature had redrawn districts since Republicans consolidated their control of the legislature. The GOP took control of the state House after the 2016 election.

In last year’s election, the GOP won 80 of the 100 state House seats. Under an alternative plan relied upon by the plaintiffs, Republicans were projected to win at least 77 seats, the Supreme Court said.

“We note that every seat is important,” Bisig wrote. The court concluded that a difference of three seats in the 100-seat Kentucky House didn’t rise to the level of a “clear, flagrant and unwarranted” violation of constitutional rights.

State GOP spokesman Sean Southard said the high court rightfully rejected “a pathetic attempt” by Democrats to throw out Kentucky’s congressional and state House maps.

Kentucky House Democratic leaders said they disagreed with the ruling. “It gives legislative majorities much more authority to protect themselves at the expense of many voters while guaranteeing more political polarization for decades to come,” they said in a statement.

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