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Judge rejects GOP bid to delay Michigan redistricting commission

LANSING – Michigan can proceed with plans to create an independent redistricting commission after a federal judge on Monday rejected Republican attempts to immediately delay implementation of a state constitutional amendment voters approved last fall.

The decision by U.S. District Court Janet Neff, appointed by GOP former President George W. Bush, is a blow to Republicans who fought the 2018 ballot initiative and drew the state’s current congressional and legislative districts in 2011. An appeal appears likely.

In a 46-page opinion, Neff wrote that temporarily blocking the redistricting commission while she considers the fate of dual GOP lawsuits would be “extraordinary” and “drastic.” The panel is set to draw new political boundaries for the 2022 election cycle. 

The Michigan Republican Party and individual GOP plaintiffs claim restrictions on commission membership limit their free speech and association rights, but Neff ruled they “have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits” of claims made in their lawsuits, which remain active.

Even if the claims had merit, "preserving the status chosen by the voters more than one year ago is important as this case progresses through the courts toward final resolution," the judge ruled. 

The Michigan GOP alleges the commissioner selection process that’s underway violates its freedom of association rights by precluding parties from picking their own representatives to serve on the panel. 

Republican activists, in a separate lawsuit backed by the National GOP Redistricting Trust, allege that rules prohibiting individuals from serving on the commission because of political ties amount to a form of discrimination.

“We're going to take a look at what our legal options are," Michigan Republican Party spokesman Tony Zammit told Bridge Magazine late Monday. "We're going to continue to pursue this.” 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the named defendant in the GOP lawsuits, has defended the voter-approved law and last month launched the application process for the commission, which must include four Republicans, four Democrats and five residents who do not affiliate with either of the two major political parties. 

Voters Not Politicians, the group that spearheaded the 2018 ballot initiative and intervened in the GOP lawsuits, celebrated Neff's decision to deny the requests for a preliminary injunction. 

“Michigan voters amended our state Constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and bring fair maps to Michigan,” executive director Nancy Wang said in a statement, noting that thousands have already applied to be on the commission.

Prior to the ballot initiative, Michigan law allowed whatever party had power in Lansing to control the redistricting process every ten years. Republicans drew current boundaries ahead of 2012 elections.

A three-judge federal panel struck down those maps last year, calling them a gerrymander of historic proportions designed to entrench Republican power at the expense of Democratic voters. But the U.S. Supreme Court effectively killed that case in June, ruling the redistricting process is a political decision reserved for the states and Congress.

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