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Michigan redistricting panel finished maps month ago. Why is it still meeting?

redistricting sign
Two lawsuits remain pending against the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s legislative maps, but there’s ambiguity about whether the 13-member panel is supposed to continue meeting once they get resolved. (Bridge photo by Valaurian Waller)

March 24: Michigan redistricting commissioners reverse their own pay raise
March 10: Michigan redistricting panel sticks with pay raise despite fewer meetings

LANSING — Despite approving the new congressional and state legislative maps over two months ago, the Michigan redistricting commission continues to meet, and commissioners continue to get paid.

That’s partly because there’s no clear expiration date for the group created in 2018 by a voter-approved constitutional amendment that some observers and experts now say was too vague.

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“The drafters (of the amendment) did sort of create an issue,” Steve Liedel,  an attorney who worked as legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, told Bridge Michigan.

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The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was created after voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that changed how the state draws boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts.

The prior process, in which the majority party in the Michigan Legislature drew the districts every decade after the decennial census, led to some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.

The constitutional amendment states that “the terms of the commissioners shall expire once the commission has completed its obligations for a census cycle but not before any judicial review of the redistricting plan is complete.”

There are now two legal challenges pending against the maps that were approved by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in December.

A simple reading of the constitution would suggest that once those lawsuits are resolved, the commission’s work would end — but some commissioners say it’s not that clear.

The maps are expected to go into effect later this month, but it could take months for the legal issues to be resolved. And there could be more legal challenges in the next few years as well.

The old districts, approved in 2011, were challenged in federal court by the League of Women Voters in 2017 and the case dragged on to 2019.

The issue has gained resonance in the past few weeks when commissioners voted to increase their salary by 7 percent to nearly $59,650 and the 13-member commission asked its legal team to advise them on when to stop meeting.

Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the push for the constitutional amendment, told Bridge Michigan in a text message the amendment will have to be interpreted by the commission’s lawyers. 

“It is impossible to answer or even analyze questions regarding hypothetical mid-cycle litigation without knowing the issues, the parties, or the precise timing, all of which would impact such analysis,” Wang said.

Rebecca Szetela, the chair of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, told Bridge Michigan “it seems more likely that the commission should disband rather than just continue on for the next nine years in perpetuity.”

“That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.”

She said she believes the legal opinion should be able to shed some light on the issue, and clarify the commission’s next steps.

“That’s the concern that if we disband, and then the call goes out two years from now, are we going to have that nine immediately that we need to take action?” Szetela said, referring to the fact that the constitution requires at least nine members to be present in order to have a quorum. 

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Liedel, however, said it might be necessary to get a judge to decide what the commission does next.

“The Legislature can't pass a law (to decide length of commissioner’s term),” Liedel said. “And the commission can’t adopt language with regard to the length of their terms that would be inconsistent with the Constitution.”

So, Liedel said, it is likely a court would have to decide whether a new lawsuit automatically extends the commissioners’ terms, or whether the Michigan Secretary of State would have to select 13 new commissioners in the same decade.

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