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Court denies Republicans’ bid to halt Michigan’s redistricting commission


Implementation of the Michigan redistricting commission should proceed as planned, a panel of three federal judges ruled Wednesday. 

Two cases brought against the state by the Michigan Republican Party and individual state Republicans asked the court to declare the voter-approved commission unconstitutional and halt its formation. 

“Today’s federal court decision upholding the authority of Michiganders to amend their state constitution and create citizen-led districting is a victory for our citizens and our democracy,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Voters in 2018 approved the nonpartisan panel, which will redraw political boundaries after this year’s census, wresting the task from the party in power in the state Legislature.

Since 2000, that’s been Republicans. One suit challenged the constitutionality of eligibility guidelines that bar elected officials, candidates, lobbyists, legislative staffers and their family members from serving on the commission. The other suit claimed the commission’s selection criteria violate the Republican Party’s freedom of association by barring parties from choosing who represents them. 

The appeals court upheld a lower federal court’s decision. The three-judge Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel consisted of judges Karen Moore and Ronald Gilman, both appointed by President Bill Clinton,  and Chad Readler, who was appointed by President Donald Trump. 

The eligibility criteria are “part and parcel of the definition of this Commission, of how it achieves independence from partisan meddling,” Moore wrote in the opinion. “The government’s interest in avoiding partisan conflicts of interests and unsavory patronage practices” by including them aren’t unconstitutional. 

And the Michigan Republican Party’s fear that the commission would violate their freedom to association only can apply to elected officials bound to represent them, Moore wrote.

“The commissioners here are not elected, and their duties do not include translating ‘common principles’ with party adherents into ‘concerted action.’” 

“We are disappointed by today's court decision but stand by our belief that the current format of the redistricting committee is unconstitutional, and we will be reviewing our options in the coming days,” said Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Tony Zammit. 

Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund and one of the plaintiffs in the case brought by individual Republicans, also said: “Our team is reviewing the decision and will be making a determination on next steps in the near future.”

The decision may mean this challenge to the redistricting commission has come to an end. 

The GOP can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court decided last summer that federal courts don’t have a role in gerrymandering cases and decided in 2015 that redistricting commissions have the power to draw district lines. 

The Michigan redistricting commission will be a 13-member board of randomly-selected Republicans, Democrats and independent voters that will draw state and congressional voting district lines. 

Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the successful ballot initiative to implement the commission, intervened in the case last fall to argue for the commission. Lawyers from the Campaign Legal Center, a national voting rights advocacy group, spoke on their behalf in court during oral arguments in March.  

“We are pleased with the decision today, which places the interests of Michigan voters first. Taking partisanship out of drawing electoral maps is critical to advancing the principle of accountability in government,” said Paul Smith, an attorney with the CLC. “Michigan voters want fair maps. They will not be silenced by special interests, who continue to try and exert their will over the redistricting process.”

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