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Judge rules against challenge to Missouri Senate district map

Judge Jon Beetem is shown at the bench during a hearing in his Cole County courtroom.
Julie Smith
Pool Photo
Judge Jon Beetem is shown at the bench during a hearing in his Cole County courtroom.

The state Senate district map is constitutional despite its splits to political subdivisions in St. Louis County and northwest Missouri, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled earlier this week.

In a 21-page decision, Beetem rejected a challenge to the districts drawn last year by a panel of appeals court judges. The choices made by the Judicial Redistricting Commission are permitted by the constitution and prioritize compactness over other factors the commission was required to consider, Beetem wrote in the ruling.

“This court will not fault the Judicial Redistricting Commission for making less than ‘ideal’ choices within a constitutional framework, especially as compounded by the short amount of time that the Judicial Redistricting Commission had to complete its task,” Beetem wrote.

In the case, residents of Buchanan County in northwest Missouri and Hazelwood in St. Louis County argued that the map violates a provision of the Missouri Constitution requiring as few splits as possible of municipalities and counties in the 34-district Senate map. The lawsuit alleged that it violates the Missouri Constitution because it “packs” Black residents into two St. Louis area districts and splits Buchanan County without good cause.

The plaintiffs, a resident of Hazelwood and a resident of Buchanan County, wanted Beetem to redraw the lines for 13th and 14th districts in St. Louis County and to revise the boundaries of the 12th, 21st and 34th districts in northwest Missouri. The plan submitted by attorney Chuck Hatfield would have put all of Buchanan County in the 12th District, shift a portion of Clay County from the 21st to the 34th District and shift eight small population counties from the 12th District to the 21st.

Beetem heard evidence during a one-day trial in July. In his ruling, he wrote that the map drawn by the judicial panel meets the constitution’s requirements for compactness and does not violate provisions limiting differences from an ideal distribution of population.

The choices made by the commission are reasonable, Beetem wrote, adding that “the Constitution does not require numerical precision or any other form of perfection from the redistricting commissions, who are chosen to fulfill this legislative task.”

In a text message to The Independent, Hatfield wrote that no decision has been made on whether to appeal the ruling. But the number of changes to the redistricting process since the last Senate map was crafted make an appeal attractive.

“This ruling would be a good opportunity for the Supreme Court to give guidance on redistricting,” Hatfield wrote.

After every census, political district lines based on population are revised to be as equal as possible. Lawmakers redraw congressional district lines. The job of devising legislative district boundaries is given to 14-member Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commissions, one for the House and one for the Senate.

If either fails to produce a map, the job is then turned over to a panel of appeals court judges. The House bipartisan commission produced a map for 163 districts that has not been challenged.

During the trial, Beetem heard testimony from Sean Nicholson, a long-time political activist for progressive causes who led a 2018 ballot campaign that made partisan fairness a major factor for redistricting. Republican backlash put a proposal on the 2020 ballot that made following local political boundaries a priority and put partisan fairness as the lowest priority.

Nicholson testified as an expert on redistricting over the objections of an attorney representing Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, the defendant in the case. On the stand, Nicholson admitted that he didn’t know all the mathematical formulas for determining whether districts are compact or other measures.

In his decision, Beetem wrote that Nicholson did not have the expertise to know whether the proposed alternative map met constitutional requirements or even if the web-based application he used to create it had accurate population information.

The legal standard for a challenge is whether the map “clearly and undoubtedly” violates the constitution’s directives for creating districts, Beetem wrote. The 2020 revision to redistricting rules, Beetem wrote, also “restored compactness and contiguity to their pre-2018 prominence.”

The splits to Buchanan County and Hazelwood in the map drawn by the judicial commission are natural choices, he wrote.

“The evidence clearly shows that to the extent any political subdivision lines were crossed,” Beetem wrote, “the Judicial Commission chose districts that were more compact.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.