Politics

FRANKFORT — The state must pay the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and other plaintiffs more than $160,000 in attorneys’ fees because the legislature failed to enact new legislative district maps in a timely fashion, the group announced today.

U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman in late July ordered the payment in the joint civil suit filed against the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the State Board of Elections.

The suit, initiated by the ACLU and a group of voters, noted the state failed to enact new maps during the 2013 regular session of the General Assembly, and were using maps created in 2002 as a result of the 2000 census.

The lawsuit claimed that population growth in the state’s urban centers in the ensuing decade effectively diluted those voters’ power at the ballot box. And the state’s actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s “one person, one vote” mandate, said William Sharp, legal director for the ACLU of Kentucky.

“The biggest accomplishment of the suit was forcing the General Assembly to do what it should have done,” Sharp said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We need to make sure that the process of legislative districting should be accomplished in full view of the public, not behind closed doors, and in advance of the election cycle,” he said.

In a statement released Tuesday, Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo criticized the ACLU for even taking up the suit.

“It is a shame that the ACLU did not simply allow the redistricting process to take place rather than running up court costs while the legislature was actively engaged in developing a final redistricting plan,” he said.

The ACLU of Kentucky’s executive director, Michael Aldridge, criticized Frankfort for wasting taxpayer money on the issue.

“Unfortunately, the General Assembly, at the governor’s urging, disregarded our admonition in 2012 to accomplish redistricting during the 2013 regular session,” Aldridge said. “As a result, officials again wasted Kentucky’s tax dollars not only for a special session to deal with an issue that should have been resolved in regular session, but also on litigation costs in defending what were clearly unconstitutional legislative maps.”

The ACLU will be paid $58,000 in attorneys’ fees and a group of plaintiffs in Northern Kentucky will get about $110,000.

The redistricting process is largely conducted behind closed doors, which has drawn criticism not just from the ACLU, but from many rank-and-file legislators.

“It’s kind of the ugly part of it,” said Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat. “Whoever’s controlling that chamber is going to try to make those districts to their political advantage, but they went too far.”

Wayne and a Republican colleague, Rep. Tim Moore, were the most recent sponsors of legislation that would reform the current redistricting process.

Currently, state House and Senate leadership clandestinely draw the new maps themselves without public oversight. Moore and Wayne want an independent, apolitical commission to lead the process.

Wayne cited the California Citizens Redistricting Commission as one such model that could replace the Kentucky format. The commission is comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four commissioners from neither major party, and requires the body to “conduct an open and transparent process enabling full public consideration of and comment on the drawing of district lines,” according to the California state constitution.

A March 2014 paper published by the Harvard Law & Policy Review found that, while the California Commission is in its current state “imperfect,” it “created high levels of transparency, greatly increased public participation, and produced districts that reflected the priorities of federal and state law.”

The California Commission had one notable kerfuffle in 2011, which included allegations of Democratic manipulation of the group’s public comment period.

Wayne believes that such a commission would significantly reduce or outright eliminate the possibility of incumbents to fortify themselves through gerrymandering, and thus reduce the likelihood that new maps could be declared unconstitutional down the road.

“That’s a much wiser way to do it,” Wayne said. “You avoid these kinds of lawsuits, and of course you avoid the added expense.”

In accordance with requirements of the decennial U.S. Census, lawmakers must reapportion and redraw districts every 10 years to account for population shifts.

The Kentucky Supreme Court in 2012 rejected new maps drawn by the legislature earlier that year, a move that prompted the ACLU to file suit, requesting that the redistricting process be conducted by a three-judge panel instead of the legislature, ultimately leading to the 2013 special session. That special session resulted in a slate of new maps that passed constitutional muster and effectively solved the issue for state legislative districts.

When asked if he would support Wayne’s recommendation, Stumbo said he is “open to discussing ways we can improve the process.”

“But I am not a big fan of abdicating legislative responsibility,” he said.

Correction: The story has been changed to reflect the attorneys’ fees that will be paid to plaintiffs in Northern Kentucky.