JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri judge has upheld the constitutionality of the state's Senate districts in a case that provided the first legal test of revised redistricting criteria approved by voters.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem rejected claims that the Senate map unlawfully divided certain local governments into multiple Senate districts, but an attorney said Wednesday that his clients are considering an appeal.
“We are concerned that the ruling announces a new and incorrect standard that could affect redistricting for a long time," said attorney Chuck Hatfield, who represents voters who sued. “So this seems like a good candidate for a Supreme Court appeal.”
Missouri is one of about 20 states with ongoing litigation stemming from redistricting that occurred after the 2020 census. Many of those cases allege the districts put voters of minority races or political parties at a disadvantage.
In Missouri, two separate bipartisan citizen commissions are supposed to redraw state House and Senate districts after each census to account for population changes. But the Senate commission was unable to agree on a plan and the task fell to a judicial panel.
A lawsuit alleged that the judicial panel violated the state constitution by splitting the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood and Buchanan County in western Missouri into multiple districts. The suit also originally claimed the voting strength of minority residents was wrongly diluted in some St. Louis-area districts, but that claim was dropped before trial.
The case provided the first legal test of Missouri's redistricting criteria since voters revised them in a 2018 ballot initiative and then — before those standards ever were used — revised them again in a 2020 constitutional amendment referred to the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature.
In a ruling Tuesday, Beetem said that the 2020 constitutional amendment placed a higher priority on creating compact districts than on keeping intact political subdivisions such as cities or counties.
“The evidence clearly shows that to the extent any political subdivision lines were crossed, the Judicial Commission chose districts that were more compact,” Beetem wrote.
Hatfield said he doesn't believe the constitutional criteria make it OK to split a county into multiple districts when it could be kept whole.
The Senate districts were defended in court by Attorney General Andrew Bailey's office. Bailey spokesperson Madeline Sieren described the ruling as a “win for the people of Missouri.”