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Federal judge dismisses GOP case against Michigan redistricting commission

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. 

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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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