Bridge, news outlets sue Michigan redistricting panel to release memos
LANSING — A coalition of news outlets including Bridge Michigan filed suit in the Michigan Supreme Court late Tuesday to compel the state's redistricting commission to release secret memos used to draw minority-majority districts.
Bridge, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Press Association filed an emergency complaint seeking recordings of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s closed meeting Oct. 27, as well as memos and other materials it used to shape proposed districts.
The suit follows more than a month of requests from Bridge and other news organizations for the documents. The 13-member group was created in 2018 after 61 percent of Michigan voters supported a constitutional amendment intended to make the drawing of legislative districts more transparent.
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The commission replaced a largely secretive process that allowed the party in power in Lansing to draw district boundaries for state House and Senate districts and state congressional delegation. The districts last 10 years.
"Michigan voters went to great lengths to ensure transparency and meaningful public participation in the redistricting process," the lawsuit states.
"Accordingly, plaintiffs, as members of the public, have the necessary clear legal right to public disclosure of the redistricting materials."
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, the redistricting commission said “it looks forward to asserting its right to attorney-client privilege in court."
“We are not surprised or distracted by this lawsuit and will continue our mission to draw fair maps through public engagement openly and transparently.”
The panel added the public can watch 133 meetings and hearings on YouTube.
The redistricting panel has claimed that the memos — titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting” — are protected under attorney-client privilege.
But some members of the commission have said the documents are merely historical in nature and do not involve legal strategy that would be covered under attorney-client privilege.
“It is a statewide civic embarrassment that this (lawsuit) is necessary,” said John Bebow, president and CEO of Bridge Michigan and The Center for Michigan, its parent nonprofit.
“But the embarrassment rests with the redistricting commission. We cannot rest until that commission follows the Constitution, acts in full transparency, and releases the doggone documents.”
Most of the commission’s meetings have been live-streamed and open to the public.
But on Oct. 27 the commission discussed both memos behind closed doors, following complaints that proposed its proposed would disenfranchise Black voters and eliminate majority-minority districts.
Attorneys for the commission have told the panel it has the right to meet in private under the Open Meetings Act, and that disclosing the documents would set a bad precedent and hinder their ability to provide candid legal advice.
The commission voted last week 7-5 to keep the documents secret, despite calls from the public, news organizations, and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to release the documents.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued an unbinding opinion last month in which she said the commission “must” release the memoranda, and that the panel should have not met behind closed doors.
The Michigan Constitution says the commission “shall conduct all of its business at open meetings.” The state Senate last week passed a bill barring the group from using the Open Meetings Act to meet in private.
The commission is halfway through a 45-day public comment period on its 15 proposed maps, which commissioners built with information that appeared on the memos.
The panel is expected to approve the districts in late December.
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