Kentucky Supreme Court must weigh constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders

Arguments heard in lawsuit that could affect elections in 2024 and 2026

By: - September 19, 2023 4:57 pm

Kentucky Supreme Court (front, from left) Debra Hembree Lambert, Chief Justice Laurance VanMeter, Michelle Keller. (Back row, from left) Christopher Shea Nickell, Kelly Thompson, Robert Conley, Angela McCormick Bisig. (AOC photo/Brian Bohannon)

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday about whether Republican-drawn U.S. and Kentucky House districts are gerrymandered and if that matters under the state constitution. 

Kentucky Democrats filed the lawsuit after the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly adopted the maps last year. Attorneys for the Democrats and the Commonwealth of Kentucky argued before Kentucky’s seven justices, who will later make a ruling on the lawsuit. 

Attorney Michael Abate talks to media after arguing in front of the Supreme Court. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

The Supreme Court decided to hear the case earlier this year, bypassing the Court of Appeals. Previously, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the maps were a result of  “partisan gerrymanders” but he declined to find them unconstitutional.

Congressional and legislative districts are redrawn by the state legislature after a new U.S. Census is released every ten years. Tuesday’s oral arguments came more than a year after the General Assembly enacted the maps. The court’s future ruling could impact elections in 2024 or 2026. 

Michael Abate, a Louisville attorney representing Democrats, told reporters the court will have to decide if the state constitution prohibits a majority party from gerrymandering or creating districts to heavily favor the party in power. He said elections with preordained outcomes because of gerrymandering are “not ‘free or equal,’” as the state constitution requires. He said evidence shows that only seven of 100 House districts had a 25% chance of going for either party.

Secretary of State Michael Adams addresses reporters outside of the Supreme Court. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

“The results were preordained virtually everywhere, and we proved that’s not because of Kentucky’s unique political geography,” Abate said. “It was an intentional choice by the mapmakers to draw lines to favor Republicans at every turn.” 

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, a defendant in the lawsuit, told reporters after the court recessed that the case hinges on what is in the state constitution regarding gerrymandering, not just the new maps. 

“Our position is that the constitution doesn’t speak to this issue at all. If it did, why’d the Democrats gerrymander their maps for 100 years?” Adams said. “So my view is this is a matter in the constitution left up to the legislature, and they can use their own standards as long as they comply with the Voting Rights Act.” 

Inside the courtroom, Abate first defended the Democrats’ position. Justice Angela McCormick Bisig pressed Abate about the 2022 elections, which saw Republicans take 80 seats in the 100-member state House. She said the predicted outcome of maps proposed by Democrats would have seen 77 Republicans elected — a fact she said “that is hard to overlook.” In response, Abate said if even a small number of seats flip, “the governance is weaker as a whole.” 

Victor Maddox, an assistant deputy attorney general representing the commonwealth, told justices that Kentucky Democrats became a superminority “not even with a map drawn by political adversaries.” That, Maddox argued, was a strong reason for the court to stay out of the political process of redistricting. 

‘Comer hook’

The boundaries of Kentucky’s six congressional districts, redrawn in 2022, are being challenged before the Kentucky Supreme Court. (Legislative Research Commission)

Justice Christopher Shea Nickell, who represents Western Kentucky on the Supreme Court, questioned Maddox about the need for the new 1st Congressional District, which stretches from the Mississippi River before arching northward to Frankfort. Dubbed the “Comer hook,” the district’s reach into Central Kentucky is thought to benefit U.S. Rep. James Comer whose residence is in Frankfort. 

Kentucky Lantern graphic by McKenna Horsley

“It would seem entirely reasonable to expect anyone aspiring to represent our region to have pride … in its people, heritage and culture to want to actually reside within its traditional borders,” Nickell said. 

Maddox responded that the change to the district under the Republican plan was “slight.” He added that the other congressional districts except for the 3rd District “became more compact” as a result of the redistricting.

The maps debated Tuesday will not have an impact on November’s general election, which is for statewide races. The court’s decision could impact 2024 and 2026 elections.

“But we do hope the court will rule by early next year in the legislative session so we have some clarity,” Adams said. 

Both Adams and Abate said that if the court rules the maps cannot be used, the General Assembly will be tasked with making new ones. 

Kentucky House of Representatives districts. (Legislative Research Commission)


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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.