The three-judge federal panel tasked with determining the constitutionality of outdated Kentucky voting districts has granted the plaintiffs attorneys’ fees, possibly paving the way to an official end to the state’s two-year redistricting nightmare.
The court’s ruling filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky permanently enforces a prior ruling prohibiting the state from conducting elections based on districts drawn in 2002 while reinforcing the legitimacy of new maps adopted by the legislature over the summer.
The court initially ruled that the districts were outdated in an Aug. 19 ruling, which was followed by a series of counter motions filed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, which the court declared as “moot” in its Thursday ruling.
A statement released by Stumbo’s office suggests that the ruling is a win for the new legislative maps, which were enacted during a five-day special session of the General Assembly held in August.
“While discussion of attorney fees remains, this ruling ensures that, barring a new lawsuit, the maps the General Assembly approved in August will be the ones governing legislative elections for the next decade,” Brian Wilkerson, a spokesman for Stumbo, said in a statement.
Based on data from the most recent census, the new maps passed by wide margins in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear on Aug. 23.
But Thursday’s ruling also permits the three-judge panel to arbitrate future litigation aimed at the new maps should they be challenged in court. Currently, the plaintiffs have not challenged the new maps, and no other parties have filed litigation against them.
The court wrote that it does not rule out the potential for a state or federal challenges to the new maps by outside parties. If that were to happen, the matter would again be argued before the three-judge panel.
The lawsuit at the heart of the ruling combined separate complaints filed by voters in Louisville and Northern Kentucky. They successfully argued that their votes were “diluted” because local, state and federal elections used voting districts enacted in 2002 and apportioned using 2000 U.S. Census data. The districts didn’t take into account population shifts across the state in the ensuing decade, they argued.
The ACLU of Kentucky heralded the court’s ruling as a “total victory” for voters across the state.
“The ACLU was forced to bring this lawsuit to ensure that Kentuckians’ voting rights were protected. Unfortunately, the General Assembly, at the governor’s urging, disregarded our calls to accomplish redistricting during the 2013 regular session,” said ACLU of Kentucky executive director Michael Aldridge in a statement.
“As a result,” Aldridge continued, “officials have wasted Kentucky’s tax dollars on a special session and now attorney’s fees on an issue that should and could have been accomplished in a timely manner.”
Stumbo’s lead counsel in the case, Frankfort attorney Anna Whites, decried on Stumbo’s behalf the potential awarding of a “big fee” to the plaintiffs by the court.
“House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s next task is to make sure that taxpayers are not unfairly charged a big fee by the plaintiffs,” wrote Whites. “The ACLU filed motions asking that the Court duplicate the decision already made by the elected officials when they passed the new plan. Speaker Stumbo will fight any attempt by the plaintiffs to unfairly claim excessive attorney fees for time spent on their unnecessary filings. “
A spokeswoman for the ACLU of Kentucky said that a total figure for the attorney’s fees hasn’t been tabulated. It’s also unclear how much the defense has cost the state.
The General Assembly paid out $19,000 in public funds to foot the legal bill for its defense in a 2012 redistricting suit brought by state lawmakers. That case went before the Kentucky Supreme Court, which threw out boundaries drawn during the legislature’s 2011 regular session that ultimately led to this year’s special session.
The plaintiffs have 30 days to file a motion seeking attorneys fees.