Pearson v. Koster

Decision Date03 July 2012
Docket NumberSC 92326.,Nos. SC 92317,s. SC 92317
Citation367 S.W.3d 36
PartiesKenneth PEARSON, et al., Appellants, v. Chris KOSTER, et al., Respondents. Stan McClatchey, et al., Appellants, v. Robin Carnahan, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court


Gerald P. Greiman, Frank Susman and Thomas W. Hayde Jr., Spencer Fane Britt & Browne LLP, St. Louis, and Keith A. Wenzel Spencer Fane Britt & Browne LLP, Jefferson City, for the Pearson challengers.

Richard E. Schwartz, St. Louis, for William Lacy Clay.

Jamie Barker Landes, Lee's Summit, for McCatchey challengers.

State Solicitor James R. Layton, Attorney General's Office, Jefferson City, for the State.

Todd P. Graves, Edward D. Greim and Clayton J. Callen, Graves Bartle Marcus & Garrett LLC, Kansas City, for the Legislators.


Under article III, section 45 of the Missouri Constitution, the General Assembly enacted H.B. 193 to redistrict Missouri for the election of the United States House of Representatives. Two groups of plaintiffs filed declaratory judgment actions to challenge the constitutional validity of the congressional redistricting map in H.B. 193 (the Map), claiming that it failed to meet the constitutional requirements for compactness. The trial court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the Map violates the requirement in article III, section 45 that each district be “as compact ... as may be” and entered judgments in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court's judgments erroneously interpret the constitutional standard for compactness and that the judgments are against the weight of the evidence.

This Court determines that the trial court did not err in its interpretation of the constitutional compactness standard because the standard does not require absolute precision in compactness and because mandatory and permissible recognized factors can impact the configuration of district boundaries. This Court further holds that the plaintiffs do not prevail on their claim that the trial court's judgment is against the weight of the evidence. This Court generally refuses to substitute its opinion for that of the trial court on disputed factual issues by re-weighing the evidence in a court-tried case. The parties strenuously disputed whether the challenged districts depart from the compactness principles and if they are “as compact ... as may be,” specifically whether minimal and practical deviations from compactness are supported by factors recognized by this Court. The trial court made credibility assessments and weighed the evidence at trial in reaching its judgments. Because this case involves judgments for the defendants, who have no burden of proof, and because neither party requested findings of fact that would assist in appellate review, this is not a case in which this Court should substitute its judgment for that of the trial court on the evidence regarding disputed factual issues.

Accordingly, this Court affirms the judgments of the trial court.

Procedural History

The Missouri Constitution provides that the General Assembly shall divide the state into districts based on the number of representatives to which it is entitled, as determined under the decennial census of the United States. Mo. Const. art. III, sec. 45. The Missouri Constitution requires the General Assembly to enact a map with districts that “shall be composed of contiguous territory as compact and as nearly equal in population as may be.” Id. In May 2011, over the governor's veto, both houses of the General Assembly voted to approve the Map in H.B. 193.

Two groups, the Pearson Plaintiffs and the McClatchey Plaintiffs1 (collectively, Plaintiffs), filed actions to challenge the Map under Mo. Const. art. III, sec. 45, each asserting claims that the districts were not “as compact ... as may be.” Defendants, Attorney General Chris Koster and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, as well as intervenors Representative John. J. Diehl and Senator Scott T. Rupp,2 filed motions to dismiss or for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court sustained the motions and dismissed both cases. Plaintiffs appealed to this Court.

This Court consolidated the cases and decided Pearson v. Koster on January 17, 2012. See359 S.W.3d 35 (Mo. banc 2012) (Pearson I ). In Pearson I, this Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Plaintiffs' petitions on every claim except the claims regarding compactness. Id. at 40. This Court stated:

[I]t is a question of fact, yet to be tried, whether those districts are “as compact and nearly equal in population as may be. Mo Const. art. III, sec. 45 (emphasis added). This Court makes no prejudgment on these issues, or on the compactness of other districts, other than to hold that Plaintiffs have stated a claim as to the compactness of the districts that is subject to proof and defenses in accordance with evidence as in any other lawsuit.

Id. This Court remanded the cases to the trial court for determination of the factual issues. Id.

On remand, the trial court held a trial to determine whether the districts are “as compact ... as may be.” Mo. Const. art. III, sec. 45. Plaintiffs and Defendants made various stipulations, and both presented evidence regarding whether the challenged districts are “as compact ... as may be.” After hearing the evidence, the trial court entered judgments in favor of both Defendants on February 3, 2012. It determined that the phrase “as compact ... as may be” means that compactness cannot be achieved with absolute precision and permits districts to be drawn in multiple ways while still meeting the compactness requirement due to other factors. The trial court then found that, [u]nder the standard and rationale announced by the Supreme Court, and the facts adduced at trial, the Plaintiffs have failed to prove that H.B. 193 is unconstitutional because it is not ‘as compact as may be.’ Plaintiffs appeal.

On appeal, the Pearson Plaintiffs and the McClatchey Plaintiffs assert multiple claims of error in the trial court's judgments. The Pearson Plaintiffs claim that the trial court erred in: (1) applying an improper standard for determining whether the Map is as compact as may be; and (2) finding the Map as compact as may be under the facts, in that a visual observation and other maps show that it could be significantly more compact. The McClatchey Plaintiffs claim that the trial court erred in: (1) improperly interpreting the phrase “as compact ... as may be”; (2) failing to shift the burden to Defendants to justify deviations from compactness; and (3) failing to find that district 5 is not as compact as may be under the circumstances. Plaintiffs' points on appeal essentially constitute claims that the trial court's judgments erroneously apply the law and that they are against the weight of the evidence.

Standard of Review

This Court's decision in White v. Director of Revenue details the applicable standard of review for appeals of court-tried civil cases. 321 S.W.3d 298, 307–08 (Mo. banc 2010). The judgment of the trial court will be affirmed “unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.” Id. (citing Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976)). The application of this standard of review varies depending on the burden of proof applicable at trial and the error claimed on appeal to challenge the judgment. See In re Adoption of W.B.L., 681 S.W.2d 452, 454 (Mo. banc 1984). The reviewing court cannot review the judgment of a trial court properly under a given standard of review without considering the burden of proof governing the trial court's determination.

The burden of proof applicable at trial depends on the type of claim presented in the pleadings. This case involves a challenge to the constitutional validity of a statute. For a court to find that a statute is unconstitutional, the plaintiff must overcome a burden of proof that assumes constitutional validity. Mo. Prosecuting Attorneys v. Barton County, 311 S.W.3d 737, 740 (Mo. banc 2010). The statute will not be held unconstitutional unless the plaintiff proves that it “clearly and undoubtedly contravene[s] the constitution and “plainly and palpably affronts fundamental law embodied in the constitution.” Id. at 740–41 (internal quotations omitted); see also St. Louis Cnty. v. Prestige Travel, Inc., 344 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Mo. banc 2011). All doubts are “resolved in favor of the constitutionality of the statute.” Barton County, 311 S.W.3d at 741 (internal quotations omitted).

In addition to the burden of proof, the reviewing court also must apply the proper standard of review for the error claimed on appeal. A claim that there is no substantial evidence to support the judgment or that the judgment is against the weight of the evidence necessarily involves review of the trial court's factual determinations. See White, 321 S.W.3d at 308. A court will overturn a trial court's judgment under these fact-based standards of review only when the court has a firm belief that the judgment is wrong. Id. A claim that the judgment erroneously declares or applies the law, on the other hand, involves review of the propriety of the trial court's construction and application of the law. Id. Implicit in these standards is the recognition that the trial court, in reaching its judgment, is in a better position to determine factual issues than an appellate court reviewing only the record on appeal. See id. at 308–09. In this regard, it is necessary for the reviewing court to treat differently questions of law and questions of fact.

This Court applies de novo review to questions of law decided in court-tried cases. v. City of Peculiar, 208 S.W.3d 895, 899 (Mo. banc 2006). With respect to such questions, “the appellate court reviews the trial court's determination independently, without deference to that court's...

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