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Missouri Supreme Court considering the meaning of 'perfection' in state House redistricting case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2012 - What’s the meaning of the word “perfection?”

The answer to that question appears to be at the heart of the Missouri Supreme Court’s deliberations over a challenge to the state’s new boundary lines for Missouri’s 163 state House seats.

On Monday, the court’s seven judges heard oral arguments in what may be the last of a series of lawsuits contesting new district boundaries for a variety of governmental entities, including Congress and the state Senate.

The Supreme Court’s pending decisions on the House and congressional suits, and its recent action mandating a new state Senate map, have added uncertainty – and some confusion – to the candidate-filing process that officially begins statewide at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The court’s action regarding the state House map could be particularly crucial, since more candidates are likely to file for that chamber than any other.

As the lawyer for the opposition told it, the state constitution’s mandate for the state House seats is particularly strict when it comes to the matter of population equality among the 163 districts, which according to the constitution are to be “as close as possible to perfection.”

Opponents of the new map say its districts – which vary in population by as much as 7.8 percent – definitely fail that test.

The Missouri attorney general’s office, which is defending the map, says that the map’s population differences are close enough.

Political realities are such, said attorney general chief lawyer Jim Layton, that perfection is unattainable – and, in some cases, perhaps undesirable.

The Supreme Court’s queries during Monday’s entire proceeding centered on that population debate. In fact, the judges ignored the map critics' other claim -- that the judicial panel that drew up the boundaries failed to comply with Missouri’s Sunshine Law regarding open meetings.

Lawyer Paul Wilson, who represents the opponents, told the high court that it was clear population equality was the most important requirement set forth in the state constitution when it comes to the state House districts.

That mandate sets the state House apart, he said, from the constitution’s requirements for drawing up boundary lines for the state Senate and the U.S. House. Provisions for those chambers also refer to a mandate for “compactness” and “communities of interest.”

The Missouri constitution’s concern about numbers for the state House is stronger than for the other offices, and for a reason, Wilson added.

Each Missouri county used to have a House district

As he told it, the state’s population-equality mandate appears to stem from Missouri’s past. Before federal authorities stepped in, in the mid-1960s, each of Missouri’s 114 counties – regardless of their population – had at least one state representative.

Such a requirement led to huge differences in population among Missouri's 163 seats, and was deemed to violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause.

Missouri was forced to revamp its process for crafting the state House boundary lines. The result is that some low-population counties have had to share a state representative, while other more populous parts of the state got more House lawmakers.

Wilson said that Missouri voters rejected in 1965 a proposal that would have allowed state legislators to draw up their own districts. Instead, voters approved a year later the current system of bipartisan commissions for crafting state House and Senate maps. Judges take over only if the commissions fail to reach agreements.

In 1971, the first redistricting under the new system, Wilson pointed out that the population deviation for the House seats was only 2.5 percent. But subsequent state House maps have gotten more lax, with the population differences in the 1981 redistricting map close to 10 percent.

Wilson contended that the growing population differences among Missouri’s House districts were allowed to stand because legislators and political operatives thought they could get away with it. He cited a 1970s federal court ruling – pertaining to another state – that concluded that district population differences of less than 10 percent were satisfactory and did not violate federal voting-rights laws.

Wilson said it was time for the Missouri Supreme Court to reassert that the state constitution’s language – particularly, the reference to “perfection” – required districts that are closer in population.

The Supreme Court judges appeared intrigued, although not necessarily convinced, and peppered Wilson with questions for close to an hour. As a result, Layton with the attorney general’s office had only a few minutes to make his case in favor of the map. Layton was joined by Robert Hess II, a lawyer representing several state House members who support the new map.

Map defenders cite Voting Rights Act

Layton and Hess contended that requiring that state House districts be virtually identical in population could put the state in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The act stipulates that if a state has pockets of population where African-Americans are in the majority, there must be some districts that also have majority populations of African-Americans in order to aid in the election of African-Americans.

The lawyers contended that some differences in district sizes have been necessary in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act’s requirements.

Wilson denied that the population-equality requirement had anything to do with the Voting Rights Act.

Former state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University and one of the map-critics who filed the suit, told reporters later that Layton and Hess were using the issue as “a smoke screen” to diffuse the debate over the new map’s failure to have equal-population districts that met the constitution’s “perfection” requirement.

In any case, lawyers for some of the other redistricting court fights were present to watch Tuesday’s proceedings. Several said privately afterward that they believed the Supreme Court judges want to make sure that their decision in the state House case is in line with the legal thinking in the other pending decisions.

In short, the high court may be seeking its own quest for perfection.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.