A federal lawsuit challenging Michigan’s political boundaries can proceed to trial in February, with a court concluding there is enough evidence that Republicans orchestrated a “durable partisan gerrymander” over several election cycles.
A three-judge panel on Friday dismissed a motion by lawyers for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to toss the case. The suit was brought by the League of Women Voters and has unearthed a trove of unflattering correspondence among Republican political operatives showing how the GOP drew state and congressional political borders in 2011 to favor their incumbents and minimize Democratic victories.
“Emails that the mapmakers exchanged illustrate the profound extent to which partisan political considerations played into their redistricting efforts,” the judges wrote Friday.
They added that the “efforts proved extremely successful,” allowing Republicans to win a “majority of seats” in Congress the next three elections “despite never winning more than 50.5% of the statewide vote.”
The ruling clears the case for trial in February.
The League is asking the court to order that state and congressional district lines in Michigan be redrawn before the 2020 election. It also seeks special, mid-term elections in a handful of Senate districts it claims were unconstitutionally created, said Mark Brewer, attorney for the group.
Overall, the group claims about three dozen state House, Senate and congressional seats are illegally gerrymandered by Republicans.
“This is a complete victory,” Brewer said of Friday’s opinion.
The ruling comes less than a month after Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to create an independent citizens a commission to draw political districts.
For decades, the party in power in Lansing – Republicans in 2001 and 2011 – has drawn the districts to reflect population changes following the decennial Census. The independent commission approved by voters is scheduled to begin after the 2020 Census and the first election with its maps will be 2022.
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The three-judge panel ruled that emails and other evidence uncovered in the lawsuit showed the “major consideration” of the 2011 redistricting was that “sitting . . . senators or representatives . . . want to be re-elected.”
Republican leaders and consultants met in secret to craft the 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 often 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 in a “a glorious way that makes 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.
The judges rejected arguments that the Democrats’ success in the November election is proof that gerrymandering doesn’t exist. The Democrats gained two seats to split the state’s congressional delegation 7-7.
“It is possible that Democrats would have won an even greater number of seats in the 2018 midterm election but for the unconstitutional gerrymander they allege,” the judges wrote.
Two of the judges on the panel, Eric Clay and Denise Page Hood, were appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The third judge, Gordon J. Quist, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican. He wrote a dissenting opinion, saying he agreed the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the districts but disagreed that the League of Women Voters could bring the case as a statewide issue.
The case pits prominent Democrats and Republican interests.
Brewer, the attorney for the league, was chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party during the 2011 redistricting. Johnson is represented by Michael Carvin, a prominent conservative who helped fight the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case that propelled George W. Bush to the presidency.
Bridge Magazine has written extensively about gerrymandering and the lawsuit, including the role of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce in redistricting.
Its executives helped form the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute, which paid $1 million to private GOP consultants to draw political districts in 2011.
The judges’ order noted the role of the institute in redistricting, writing the GOP “outsourced the drawing of the Congressional Districts” to the nonprofit.
More Michigan gerrymandering coverage:
- These Republican insiders split $1 million to design and defend Michigan 2011 map
- Emails suggest Republicans gerrymandered Michigan to weaken ‘Dem garbage’
- Democrats blast Michigan Chamber over gerrymandering emails
- Voting results deliver on Michigan Chamber VP’s gerrymandering promise
- Gerrymandering in Michigan is among the nation’s worst, new test claims