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Michigan redistricting group hires law firm with GOP ties over objections

Michigan map
The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is amid a series of public hearings about its proposed legislative districts. At the first hearing in Detroit this week, several residents called the maps racist. (Shutterstock)

LANSING— The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has hired a law firm that drew heat for being connected to Republicans and defending political maps that courts have determined were gerrymandered.

The 13-member panel on Thursday hired attorney E. Mark Braden and the Washington-based law firm BakerHostetler as its litigation counsel over the objection of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the 2018 push for the creation of the commission. 

The nonprofit had sounded alarms over the firm's defenses of maps deemed unconstitutional. 

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“I don't expect BakerHostetler to be nonpartisan,” said Commissioner Steve Lett, an independent in the commission, who voted to hire the firm. “What I expect them to be is competent defense attorneys if we get sued. And to do that, you have to have some experience doing this type of work.”

The commission approved the law firm on a 9-2 vote. Those opposed were Vice Chair Rebecca Szetela and Commissioner Anthony Eid, both independents.

The vote came shortly after the U.S. Census Bureau released its decennial population counts, clearing the commission to begin work on districts for the first time. For decades, state rules allowed the political party in power in Lansing to draw the maps, leading to some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.

The selection was controversial because Braden is not only one of the most experienced attorneys on redistricting in the nation, but is also the former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. 

Braden and BakerHostetler served as litigation counsel for Pennsylvania and defended the state’s 2011 congressional plan that was found unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2018 because it was biased towards the GOP.  

The firm also represented the Republican legislature of North Carolina in a challenge to its congressional and state legislative maps. The plans were found unconstitutional by multiple courts and in 2019 lawmakers were ordered to draw new ones.

The commission moved forward with the law firm after interviewing two of the firm's attorneys in Cadillac. 

Braden was not present but firm attorney Katherine McKnight said the law firm would give independent and nonpartisan advice to the commission.

“All law firms who work in this area of redistricting litigation have necessarily worked for partisan interests,” McKnight said. “Redistricting is political. Period.”

“I don't see a problem with the fact that we have represented partisan interests,” McKnight added. “If anything, I think you need that because it establishes us as having the requisite qualifications for fulfilling … the work that you need.”

BakerHostleter was the only law firm to bid on the litigation counsel proposal. 

Some commissioners expressed concerns over not interviewing additional law firms. But Lett told reporters after the vote that the commission had put out a request for proposal twice, but only received one bid. He added the commission reached out to multiple firms encouraging them to apply.

According to the proposal submitted by Braden and BakerHostetler, the litigation counsel would consist of five attorneys and a paralegal. Braden charges $915 for the hour, while McKnight charges $670.

Jamie Lyons-Eddy, the deputy director of Voters Not Politicians, said in a statement the group was “disappointed.”

“All aspects of the commission’s work must avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest and partisan bias,” Lyons-Eddy said. “BakerHostetler, with its track record of enabling partisan gerrymandering, fails that basic test.”

This is not the first time the commission’s hires have been controversial.

In April, the commission hired Maryland-based attorney Bruce Adelson as its Voting Rights Act attorney despite opposition from Republicans in the state. Adelson donated $125 to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat

The commission also hired Kimball Brace, a mapping expert who has been accused of drawing some of the nation’s most gerrymandered maps. 

“The people of Michigan voted for a nonpartisan independent redistricting process, and has trusted the MICRC to carry out that demand,” Lyons-Eddy said. “Voters Not Politicians will be watching closely in coming months and will insist that this firm and the commission consistently meet the letter of the amendment and the spirit in which it was created."

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