Federal judge dismisses GOP case against Michigan redistricting commission

Republican efforts to block a voter-approved state voting commission received another setback on Monday. (Bridge file photo)

A federal judge Monday dismissed a lawsuit by Michigan Republican groups seeking to block a new state redistricting commission. The ruling is the latest legal setback for Republicans, who earlier this year failed to win an injunction that would prevent the formation of the commission, which they contend is unconstitutional. 

The decision Monday — by U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff, appointed by GOP President George W. Bush — is a blow to state Republicans who fought against the implementation of the redistricting commission, which was created in 2018.

The litigation involved two cases first filed against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson by the Michigan Republican Party and a number of individual plaintiffs, including Michigan Freedom Fund Director Tony Daunt, in July and August last year. The suits were later consolidated.

Republicans argued that the commission is unconstitutional primarily because it disqualifies several types of people from applying to become a member, including partisan elected officials, lobbyists, political candidates and political consultants. This violates their First Amendment rights to participate, the plaintiffs argued.

The state Republican Party separately argued, among other claims, that the commission’s rules violate their freedom of association because applicants are required to state which party they’re affiliated with without the consent of the party.  

These arguments don’t hold water, Neff wrote Monday, siding with Benson and Voters Not Politicians, the group that campaigned for the creation of the redistricting commission. 

“We continue to believe that these restrictions unfairly prohibit certain Michigan citizens from serving their state, targeting them for exercising their constitutional rights or, most egregiously, for simply being related to someone who does. We will be reviewing the order and discussing next steps in the days ahead," Daunt told Bridge via email. The Michigan Republican Party did not immediately return request for comment Monday. 

Related:

Michigan’s redistricting commission was approved by a majority of statewide voters in 2018 to redraw voting district lines. The commission is to take over that duty from the state Legislature, which traditionally approved political boundaries in Michigan by a simple majority vote. That put voting boundaries in the hands of whichever political party held the majority, which was criticized for producing irregular voting districts that provided an advantage to that party. For the last two redistricting cycles, the party in charge has been Republicans. 

The commission will have 13 members: Four Republicans, four Democrats and five people unaffiliated with either party. Applicants self-identify under threat of perjury, but there is no official record of party affiliation because Michigan voters don’t register to vote by political party. 

The semi-finalist pool of 200 applicants for the first commission were randomly drawn in late June. Leaders of both parties in the state Legislature have until the end of the month to strike 20 people from this pool, and the final commission will be randomly drawn from the remaining 180 in August. The commission then has until November 2021 to complete the voting maps.

Judge Neff earlier denied Republicans’ request to impose an injunction preventing the commission’s formation while the lawsuit was litigated. That ruling was upheld this spring by a federal appeals court, leading to Neff’s decision Monday dismissing the suit. 

In her Monday ruling, Neff found that the disqualification rules aren’t unconstitutional because it has been long-recognized that “states and the federal government have compelling interests advanced by laws limiting government officials’ political activities” or limiting service based on prior political activities and the limitations on commission are “adequately tailored” for the job. The burden on disqualified applicants is “relatively insignificant” because there is a six-year limit on ineligibility, Neff wrote. For example, a partisan elected official would be eligible to serve on the commission six years after leaving office.

“This decision reaffirms exactly what our democracy demands: a fair process for the people of this state,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement. “The Court’s decision today is historic for the people of this state and further solidifies their right to be heard.”

Neff also disagreed with the Michigan GOP’s assertion that the party has a right to who represents it on the panel, supporting the appeals court’s opinion that MIGOP doesn’t have a good claim to approve Republican-affiliated commissioners because they may not affiliate with the Michigan Republican Party but the national party, or any other Republican-leaning group, and the commission members don’t represent party nominees. 

Benson’s office said the court “sided with the overwhelming majority of Michigan voters who amended our state constitution to enable the people of the state to draw fair political districts” and Voters Not Politicians, which intervened as a defendant in the case, called the decision another in a number of “decisive legal victories” supporting the commission.

“The courts have vindicated the people’s right to use our political power to take back our redistricting process and unrig our elections,” said Nancy Wang, VNP executive director. “We are thrilled to see an end to these wasteful lawsuits brought by the Michigan Republican Party, Tony Daunt of the Michigan Freedom Fund, and other opponents of fair redistricting to thwart the will of the people.”

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Comments

EB
Mon, 07/06/2020 - 3:41pm

The last time we had representative Michigan district legislators was 2001, nearly two decades ago, and our sham legislature continues until 2023, when legislators will again have been elected into office, not gerrymandered into office.

Gerrymandering has been a big reason our contempt for Michigan government has been growing. The fix can't come too soon.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 6:55am

And when the "independent" members of this commission are exposed as democrats...then what?

Ms. Wang, SoS Benson, AG Nessel and even The Bridge are loathe to bring up that troublesome question.

Will elected officials be removed from office?

Will any legislation they introduce be immediately nullified?

Will any appropriation(s) be yanked?

And forgive my skepticism, but I just don't see AG Nessel going after those who knowingly infringe upon ,"a fair process for the people of this state."

Her ties to the Michigan democratic party are too strong to allow for any impartiality on her part.

Just sayin'
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 2:11pm

Works fine in other states, just like absentee voting.

Frank
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 3:00pm

How would you even possibly know these individuals are Democrats? What would make them one? If they're not registered as a member of the party, they're independent. Even if they vote regularly with one party over another.

Matt
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 6:06am

Republican victimhood at its finest.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 7:30am

Utilizing the process of gerrymandering, to remedy the problem with gerrymandering you harp on so much about, IS NOT really a solution to gerrymandering.

Not much effort goes into explaining that little "inconsistency" in your argument, does it?

Arjay
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 9:12am

Depending on which side of the aisle you sit, this ruling either surppresses your vote or makes your vote count. Make the districts nearly square, and arrange them according to nearly equal populations, and to heck with the minority representation laws that exist today. That way, there is no gerrymandering. In no way will the so called commission do anything other than waste money.

Agreeable
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:11pm

Arjay - you have a simple solution that best resolves the partisanship in drawing districts. Limit the geography of districts to the minimum numb sides required to encompass the correct number of citizens and require 90 degree corners with the exception of a natural feature such as a river or great lake shoreline. Mo more reaching into one area and avoiding another in order to choose a choose a constituency. I hope the committee uses some commonsense criteria to guide their work regardless of their political leaning.

Anonymous
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 9:03am

Arjay only says that now that his side finally lost.

middle of the mit
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 9:40am

Does anyone remember when conservative comments said this was a democrat power grab?

https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/pool-200-selected-new-michi...

They even made arguments that there was no way to tell party affiliation. Yet here is the Republican idea for choosing those candidates.

[[[[The state Republican Party separately argued, among other claims, that the commission’s rules violate their freedom of association because applicants are required to state which party they’re affiliated with without the consent of the party. ]]]]

LOL!!!

And this gem; [[[Republicans argued that the commission is unconstitutional primarily because it disqualifies several types of people from applying to become a member, including partisan elected officials, lobbyists, political candidates and political consultants. This violates their First Amendment rights to participate, the plaintiffs argued.]]]]

OH no!!! Someone tell every private company that runs any type of sweepstakes or contest that employees, family members and friends should all be eligible for said contests.

Why would they take away these peoples ability to rig a contest?

Lol!!!

Is this what passes for deep intellectual thought and law in the Republican party?

Geoffrey Owen
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 9:57am

Democracy? We don't need no stinkin democracy. People don't need free and fair elections. What do they know anyway? Come on now Republican Party, what's your problem with having an end to gerrymandering done in an independent fashion? Haven't you enjoyed majority rule for long enough in spite of getting less votes?

Anonymous
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 9:07am

I think you know this, but it's good to share with those less enlightened: Paul Weyrich - "I don't want everybody to vote" (Goo Goo)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GBAsFwPglw

Paul Weyrich, "father" of the right-wing movement and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, Moral Majority and various other groups tells his flock that he doesn't want people to vote. He complains that fellow Christians have "Goo-Goo Syndrome": Good Government. Classic clip from 1980. This guy still gives weekly strategy sessions to Republicans nowadays. The entire dialog from the clip:

"Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

This video was produced by People For the American Way: http://www.pfaw.org

Democrats need to take note from the Republicans and engage in more longterm planning...

Matt G
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 10:52am

The GOP crack legal minds continue to deliberately misunderstand the Constitution in order to try to dismantle and delay an extremely popular ballot measure. As usual, they don't pass the giggle test, so reasonable people continue to roll their eyes and wait for representative districting.

The GOP wants to deny people the constitutional right to be represented in Congress by complaining about the rights of lobbyists and partisan officials to participate in denying representation? It would be unbelievable in fiction, but this sort of stuff is just our daily reality.

Happy
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 9:09am

Not for much longer, Supreme Court ruled states can punish electoral college for not following the popular vote.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 2:08pm

Thank God. There is hope for our state, if not our country....

Barry Visel
Tue, 07/07/2020 - 6:37pm

Unfortunately there will still be gerrymandering, to accommodate populations of similar persuasion ( sorry, I forget the specific language), community boundaries, etc. Hopefully they will be of similar geometric shape and population size.
But I can’t help but wonder if Rank-Order-Voting would solve this problem without all the gyrations? Personally, I’ve come to believe our biggest problem in our State and Country is our 2-Party system. I can identify with parts of both, but not all of one, which leaves me with no choice.

middle of the mit
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 6:01pm

Rank order or rank choice voting is the way to go!

I don't think it will help without the reform we voters passed and Republican legislators are trying to dismantle, but I'd go along with that in congruence with the reform!

Why not both?

EB
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 7:43am

Riley Begin: The commission is to take over that duty from the state Legislature, which traditionally approved political boundaries in Michigan by a simple majority vote. That put voting boundaries in the hands of whichever political party held the majority, which was criticized for producing irregular voting districts that provided an advantage to that party.

Begin is oversimplifying how gerrymandering works. To successfully gerrymander in Michigan, at a minimum, a political party must have control of both legislative houses, the governor seat and the Michigan Supreme Court. Any of these entities could have derailed gerrymandering decisions in both 2001 and 2011; none did because these check and balance entities were all controlled by Republicans. You won't find another year ending in "1", a redistricting year, where this was the case in Michigan. I'm certain Democrats would have loved to gerrymander, but they haven't had the opportunity in Michigan. Even if they had, Dems would have botched it; they aren't very good at rigging elections.

Republicans had other gerrymandering advantages in both 2001 and especially in 2011. They had very good computer programs and data that allowed them to very scientifically gerrymander voting districts. Republicans had a gerrymandering glitch to overcome in 2001, the Michigan AG (Granholm) wasn't a Republican. In 2011, however, Republicans held both the SOS office and AG office and there was no elected official that could have challenged their gerrymandering effort.

2001 and 2011 were the only years in all of Michigan history when the checks and balances aligned perfectly for successful gerrymandering.

Anonymous
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 3:56pm

Maybe the answer was to get rid of the simple majority rule and change it to 2/3 majority. That way both sides would have more input into drawing the lines. Anyhow, looking forward to the change and more fair representation.