LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
FRANKFORT — When two groups suing the legislature over its failure for two years to pass new legislative maps said they would not object to the maps enacted in a special session it sounded as if the controversy was over.
Attorneys for the two groups of plaintiffs said at the same time they would oppose any motion to dismiss the suits, citing the possibility others might be considering legal action and if that happened, the plaintiffs wanted to participate in any settlement.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s general counsel, Pierce Whites, said the legislature may file a petition to dismiss the suits because the enacted maps address all the constitutional inadequacies of previous maps and adhere to court guidelines on population.
But Laurel County Fiscal Court voted last week to explore a legal challenge to the way the House map splits the county five ways.
Laurel County isn’t the only county split several ways – Boone and Madison are split among five districts and Hardin is split six ways. Representatives from each of those counties decried the way the House map divides their counties during debate and voted against it.
But it looks like if Laurel County wants to challenge the new maps in court, it will have to go it alone. And that may not happen.
Laurel County Clerk Dean Johnson said he and Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, discussed the new maps a week ago with Laurel Fiscal Court which ended up voting to ask County Attorney J.L. Albright to investigate the merits of litigation.
“We’re kind of in a wait-and-see attitude,” Johnson said this week. “We’re not sure we could go it alone.”
Albright said the court would prefer to join other counties in a combined suit rather than file its own individual suit.
The northern Kentucky county is Boone, and Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore was one of the plaintiffs in one of the federal suits. Attorneys for plaintiffs in those suits said last week they would not challenge the new maps.
And, Moore said this week, Boone County won’t either.
“The fact that all five of our districts are within the 5 percent (population) deviation and that what we’ve got now is so much better than it was (under previous proposals), it’s unlikely that any future action will be taken,” Moore said.
Moore would prefer fewer splits and an additional northern Kentucky district but he thinks the original suit forced lawmakers to produce a better map, one Boone County and northern Kentucky can “reluctantly” live with.
Madison County is unlikely to challenge the new maps, said Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, who voted against the bill because it split her county five ways.
“Everybody is real disappointed of course, but no, I don’t think anyone wants to file suit,” she said.
Hardin County Judge/Executive Harry Berry, like Moore and Laurel County Judge/Executive David Westerfield, is a Republican. He said residents of the city of Radcliffe and residents in the northern part of the county aren’t happy with so many districts in Hardin County.
“But I have not heard anyone talking about filing a lawsuit,” he said. “I don’t know how we would have standing anyway.”
Hardin County Attorney Jenny Oldham said the county’s residents “feel like our representation has been diluted. But I personally have not had any conversations about filing a suit.”
Oldham said she hasn’t researched the question but she had doubts about whether a fiscal court would have legal standing to challenge the maps.
Legal standing means a party to litigation can demonstrate it will suffer harm from the law being challenged. Individual voters and residents are represented in the legislature and would have standing to challenge a law that determines their representation. Local governments aren’t specifically represented and might have a hard time claiming standing.
The Kentucky Constitution requires the fewest possible number of counties be split, but 22 of the 120 counties, including Laurel, Madison, Boone, and Hardin, have populations larger than the maximum district population – so they must be split at least once. And it’s mathematically impossible to split fewer than 24 counties while abiding by population guidelines for 100 districts.
That’s little consolation to counties split five and six ways.
“We have five representatives but not one of them lives in Laurel County,” said Albright.