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Michigan GOP files new suit to stop independent redistricting commission

Michigan gerrymandering ballot initiative

The Michigan Republican Party is suing to block the creation of a citizens commission established to redraw the state’s legislative and Congressional boundaries. 

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the state GOP asks a U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids to invalidate the amendment to create the redistricting commission — stopping Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, from seating any members.

In November, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to create the commission, which was pitched as a way to limit political parties from drawing boundaries for their own political gain. 

The lawsuit argues the structure of the 13-member commission — billed as politically independent  — violates the GOP’s freedom of association by barring political parties from picking their own representatives. 

“The proposal usurps the role of political parties in selecting their nominees for partisan public office, and in the case of the Michigan Republican Party, places that responsibility instead in the hands of a highly partisan elected official of the opposite political party,” the complaint says. 

The legal challenge comes one month after a seperate group of Republicans sued to stop the redistricting overhaul. That group claims the new process unconstitutionally blocks people with certain political or partisan affiliations and their family members from serving. 

In a statement Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel vowed to “vigorously defend Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the legality of the redistricting commission, preserving the will of the people and their right to adopt amendments to Michigan’s Constitution at the polls.”

Currently, lawmakers in whichever party controls the state Legislature  draw Michigan’s legislative and Congressional boundaries following every U.S. Census. That has sparked charges of gerrymandering — the idea that politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around. That system appears destined to stay in place through the 2020 elections. 

Republicans currently control the Legislature, though Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would need to approve their redistricting plan. 

But in November, more than 60 percent of voters approved a proposition to create a commission comprising four Republicans, four Democrats and five people unaffiliated with either party to redraw boundaries for 2022 and afterward. 

The new law requires Benson and future secretaries of state to mail commissioner applications to 10,000 Michigan registered voters, selected at random. 

Benson’s office plans to accept applications through June 2020, and then contract an outside firm to draw 200 applicants from the pool, which must be representative of the geographic and demographic diversity of the state. Of those 200, legislative leaders (including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield and House Minority Leader Christine Greig) may each strike five applicants. The 13 commissioners will be randomly selected from the final pool of 180.

The law requires applicants to attest under oath whether they affiliate with with one of the state’s two main parties, and if so, which one. The Michigan GOP says proposal did not define “affiliation,” and the process violates the party’s constitutional freedom to pick its own representatives. 

GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox, one of the individual plaintiffs in Thursday’s lawsuit, called the system “crazy” and said it would allow Democrats to influence who represents the Republican party, considering that Benson’s office is overseeing the process. 

“We do not oppose the concept of a fairly designed and implemented redistricting committee, but that is not what this is,” Cox said in a statement. “Instead this is an assault on the associational rights of political parties.”

Thursday’s lawsuit listed other states that had created independent redistricting commissions “without the same constitutional infirmities and violations that exist as a result of the Michigan ballot proposal.” Those included Arizona, Idaho and California.

Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the ballot drive that created the commission, panned the lawsuit on Thursday. The group suggested the Michigan GOP was trying to protect its power.

“The redistricting reform amendment, and the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, that voters overwhelmingly passed in 2018 restores political power to the people,” Nancy Wang, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “Those who have the most power to lose will do whatever they can to keep hold of it, but we are confident the redistricting amendment will withstand this legal challenge and all others, and that the will of the people will prevail.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that federal courts have no authority to weigh in on legislative gerrymandering, leaving the process in the hands of states and Congress. That decision effectively killed a similar federal case pending in Michigan related to this state’s 2011 redistricting process.

That case unearthed emails dating to 2011 that showed Republicans bragging about how their district maps would preserve their political advantage.

Thursday’s lawsuit was the second seeking to thwart the commission before it starts. 

In a complaint filed in July, a separate group of Republicans argued commission’s selection process unconstitutionally excluded certain people with political or partisan roles and their family members.

Seeking to curb political influence, the voter-approved amendment excluded several categories of people from serving. That includes anyone who has been, within the last six years:

  • A partisan candidate or elected official in local, state or federal government
  • An officer in a political party
  • A consultant or employee for a political candidate, campaign or political action committee 
  • State and federal legislative staffers
  • State and federal registered lobbyists and their employees
  • Unclassified state employees, except those who work for public universities, the courts or the armed forces
  • The parent, child or spouse of any of the above people, including stepparents and children

The July lawsuit — filed by Michigan Freedom Fund Executive Director Tony Daunt, state Sen. Tom Barrett, Board of State Canvassers member Norm Shinkle and other prominent Republicans — claimed the exclusions violate their rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Thursday’s lawsuit also echoed those criticisms.

Voters Not Politicians has asked to intervene in the July lawsuit, and Nessel has asked the District Court to dismiss it. 

"The problem that the People of the State of Michigan sought to address with the amendment was the partisanship with which legislative districts were being drawn, and the solution they chose was to take that power out of the hands of people with a direct interest in the outcome,” Nessel’s office wrote in a legal filing Monday. "This is essentially no different than excluding people from jury duty who have a relationship to the parties or who have a stake in the outcome of the case."

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