Jocelyn Benson seeks to settle gerrymandering suit by redrawing House seats

Feb. 5, 2019: Michigan Republicans defend political maps as gerrymandering trial opens
Feb. 4, 2019: New emails show Michigan GOP used maps to consolidate Republican power
Update: Federal court scuttles Michigan gerrymandering deal, rejects trial delay

New Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Friday she wants to settle a federal lawsuit alleging Michigan’s political districts were illegally gerrymandered by redrawing 11 state House seats for the 2020 election.

The proposed settlement, which must be approved by the court and is already drawing fierce objections from Republicans, would end a contentious case brought by the League of Women Voters that alleged egregious efforts in 2011 by Republican lawmakers to skew House and Senate seats as well as U.S. congressional seats in that party’s favor.

The announcement by Benson, a Democrat, is limited to state House seats and does not involve state Senate or congressional districts, which the suit has also challenged. A trial in the suit is set to begin in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Feb. 5.

Related: Michigan Democratic leaders Whitmer, Nessel and Benson working in concert

“I have a responsibility to ensure our elections operate in a manner that is fair, accessible and in compliance with the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote.” Benson said in prepared remarks.

“I believe today’s settlement strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 redistricting maps while reaching a remedy that is limited in scope and impact given the length of time these districts have been in place,” Benson said.

Michigan Republicans — Speaker of the State House Lee Chatfield, state Rep. Aaron Miller and the Republican Congressional delegation — submitted a formal request to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Friday night requesting the high court stay Benson's settlement proposal until they can review similar cases from Maryland and North Carolina. 

In addition to arguing it would save time and provide guidance to wait until the other cases are decided, Republicans wrote a federal trial in Michigan would cause "irreparable confusion" and plaintiffs including he plaintiffs the League of Women Voters and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, have experienced low "relative hardship."

"Plaintiffs slept on their rights and waited seven years and three election cycles before bringing their claims," wrote GOP attorneys in the application. 

Read the proposed settlement here

Read the Republicans' court filing here.  

Michigan legislative map faces changes

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has agreed to change the boundaries of 11 state house districts as part of a settlement over a gerrymandering lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters who argued that Republicans had unfairly drawn the districts in 2011. All of the districts are in the lower part of the lower peninsula and the changes to the 11 could trigger changes in neighboring districts as well.

Source: Michigan Secretary of State

The proposed settlement, if approved, would redraw six House seats now held by Republicans and five by Democrats. The contested districts include oddly shaped districts near Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saginaw and parts of Macomb County.

Benson became the main defendant in the case earlier this month after she took office from Ruth Johnson, a Republican whose lawyers had sought to delay and dismiss the lawsuit.

Benson, who had long criticized the Republicans' 2011 redistricting maps in her campaign for office, said the settlement was intended to end “upheaval” of redistricting in Michigan and bring fairness to elections.

Republicans immediately criticized the proposed deal, which would still have to be approved by a three-judge federal panel. 

“This settlement clearly is an attempt by Jocelyn Benson and the Democrats to try and steal the State House of Representatives in 2020,” Tony Zammit, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said in a statement.

“The Democrats know it will be nearly impossible to redraw these eleven districts without affecting countless others causing electoral chaos. Worse yet, outdated 10-year-old data will be utilized to draw the new lines which will not accurately reflect the demographics of our state.”

A 163-page filing in federal court Friday indicates the main plaintiff in the case, the League of Women Voters, has agreed to the settlement, as has new Attorney General Dana Nessel, also a Democrat.

If approved, the Republican-controlled Legislature would get the opportunity to redraw the maps for the following districts:  The 24th, 32nd, 51st, 55th, 60th, 63rd, 76th, 91st, 92nd, 94th and 95th.

Mark Brewer, the attorney who brought the case for the League of Women Voters, asked the court to quickly approve the settlement in a court filing Friday.

“It is important that the hearing take place relatively soon so that the redistricting work can commence and conclude in time for the 2020 election in the House,” wrote Brewer, who is also the former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

The settlement would avoid the possibility of trunctuating four-year Senate terms and largely leave House districts in northern Michigan unchanged.

The changes would only last to the 2020 election, after which an independent commission approved by voters in 2018 would take over the task of drawing districts for the 2022 election and beyond.

Still, it is unclear how the district in the proposed settlement could be redrawn without creating a domino effect that would reconfigure others in the House, which has 110 total districts.

Most of the districts that would be redrawn in the settlement are in pairs, which would allow the Legislature to shift lines without major disruptions.

But others aren’t so easy.

The 24th District in northeastern Macomb County and the 32nd in parts of Macomb and St. Clair County, for instance, abut but also touch four other districts.

Likewise, the L-shaped 55th House District in suburban Washtenaw County snakes around much of the the City of Ann Arbor, which is in a separate district (the 53rd) that the proposed settlement does not slate to be redrawn.

Earlier this week, Lansing pollster Richard Czuba told Bridge that any changes could create “chaos” and be a “bonanza” for political consultants who would have to redraw the maps.

“You change the boundaries of one township and it completely affects all of those around it,” Czuba said.

The announcement of a proposed deal came one week after Benson indicated she was trying to find a settlement and drew considerable criticism from Republicans who accused her of colluding with Brewer to help Democrats.

He filed the lawsuit in 2017, claiming new metrics showed Michigan has some of the worst gerrymandering in the nation.

Late last year, a three-judge panel overseeing the case ruled there was enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.

Among other things, the judges wrote the “major consideration” of the 2011 redistricting was that “sitting  . . . (Republicans) senators or representatives . . . want to be re-elected.”

In Michigan, the party that controls Lansing controls how state and federal political boundaries are drawn in the state following every decennial census. Critics say the system incentivizes lawmakers to put partisan considerations over fairness.

As Bridge has reported, Republican leaders and consultants met in secret to craft the 2011 maps, which the judges wrote were drawn to consider “the percentage of voters who voted for the Republican candidate in the previous three governors’ races .. and the percentage of voters who voted in the last three elections for the statewide education boards, a ‘guideline’ for the partisan makeup of the districts.”

The judges also took note of blunt and caustic emails from Republican staffers, including one former chief of staff to then-U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter who bragged that proposed districts were crafted to make it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties into only four districts,” as Bridge Magazine first reported.

In other emails, a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. Candice Miller noted that a proposed district was “perfect” because it’s  “it’s giving the finger to [S]andy [L]evin,” a long-time Democratic Congressman.

Mike Wilkinson and Riley Beggin contributed to this report.

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 01/25/2019 - 9:34pm

"“I have a responsibility to ensure our elections operate in a manner that is fair, accessible and in compliance with the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote.” Benson said in prepared remarks."

Where EXACTLY is she getting this nonsense from?!?

NOWHERE in our Constitution does it say anything regarding "one person, one vote".

Sat, 01/26/2019 - 3:48pm

It's a common shorthand for one of the rights provided by the equal protection clause of the US constitution's 14th amendment. See . In Reynolds v. Sims, Justice Warren wrote that the clause requires "no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens." The concept of "one man, one vote" predated this ruling but my understanding is that this is when it became enshrined in constitutional law.

Sun, 01/27/2019 - 12:50pm

And hence the distinction between what the constitution actually says and what a court or judge rules.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 01/27/2019 - 7:41pm

I hear that argument a lot.

It still doesn't change the fact that what SCOTUS did was to ignore the intent of the Founders who actually wrote out Constitution and re-interpret it how they saw fit.

Reynolds v. Sims is a perfect example of this. Art 1, Sec 3. of the US Constitution clearly states that the Senate shall be made up of two Senators from each state.

When the states began to set up their individual state governments, most of them emulated the federal model outlined in the US Constitution (i.e. fixed number of state senators whose representation was NOT dependent on population).

Why change what works?

The Warren Court disagreed with that and essentially ruled the US Constitution was unconstitutional.

SCOTUS has "creatively interpreted" much of the Constitution into saying what they want it to say, in order to promote a particular agenda.

Another case which uses another made-up term of "penumbras" allegedly contained within our Constitution quickly comes to mind.

If Judges cannot (will not) work with what is literally written in black and white, they will lose respect over time.

John Chastain
Mon, 01/28/2019 - 1:38pm

I get it Kevin, the republicans stole these districts fair & square and put us remaining “trash” in our place. How dare we challenge their attempt to create a permanent republican majority. Well not to worry it still has to be approved by the judicial branch conservatives show so much disdain for. Except when they dominate it of course. So with a Supreme Court majority friendly to voter suppression and other forms of republican mischief you may get your way after all.

Kevin in Waterford
Sun, 01/27/2019 - 11:56am

Gee - the right will fight to preserve gerrymandered districts? Is that thinkable? What a bunch of pompous asses thinking their districts would be left untouched. This is the entire point behind anti-gerrymandering legislation.
Now go work on a platform that will attract voters, not culling the voters you want.

Joan M McComber
Sun, 01/27/2019 - 2:44pm

It is not surprising that Republican legislators would disagree with this redistricting proposal. But, their argument that it unfairly favors Democrats is ludicrous since the current maps were drawn to unfairly favor Republicans. Michiganders need fair maps, and should not be forced to wait until the commission voted in by the public takes effect after the 2020 census is complete. Republicans have had too much power for too long. It is time to redraw the maps so Democrats have a fair chance to level the playing field.