DETROIT – Forget the provocative emails. And forget the funny-looking maps that shape Michigan’s political districts while you’re at it.
All that matters is whether Michigan’s political districts were drawn legally – and they were, attorneys for state Republicans argued during opening arguments Tuesday of a trial in U.S. District Court in Detroit to decide whether the GOP illegally gerrymandered the state in 2011.
“Plaintiffs come in with computer maps and say ‘We could do better,’” said Gary Gordon, an attorney for the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate.
“Well, better doesn’t matter as long as the [redistricting] plan adopted by the Legislature is constitutional.”
Brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Democrats including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, the closely watched case could decide whether dozens of Michigan legislative and congressional districts are redrawn for the 2020 election.
The trial, expected to last about a week, is being heard by three federal judges (with no jury) and likely will feature nine witnesses, plenty of technical talk over the political composition of Michigan districts, but few “Perry Mason” moments.
That’s because no live testimony is expected from GOP consultants and politicians who wrote dozens of incendiary emails previously highlighted by Bridge, and which have already been introduced into evidence.
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The emails, which include Republicans bragging about stuffing “Dem garbage” into southeast Michigan, may make for good headlines, but they are irrelevant, Gordon argued on Tuesday.
“Out-of-context emails and statements made out of hand in depositions don’t demonstrate the requirements to establish illegal gerrymandering,” he said.
Indeed, the GOP argues that Democratic gains in the state House and Senate in last November’s elections are evidence enough against gerrymandering, though both chambers remain under Republican control.
Because the case is heard by judges familiar with the evidence, plaintiffs on Tuesday morning did not spend much time reiterating their arguments. But they have argued that Michigan’s lines, by any metric, heavily favor Republicans and disenfranchise Democratic voters – and new evidence has shown the lines were drawn behind closed doors to help the GOP maintain its advantage.
“The evidence shows we have a secret, well-financed effort … to dilute the power of voters,” said Joseph Yeager, an attorney for the League of Women Voters.
Here’s what else you need to know about Day One of the trial before Judges Denise Page Hood and Eric Clay (both appointed by President Bill Clinton) and Gordon Quist (appointed by President George H.W. Bush):
Benson isn’t defending districts
The primary defendant in the case, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, plans to submit no witnesses in the case or contest plaintiff claims that the districts were illegally drawn, said Scott Eldridge, who represents her office.
“She is a longtime proponent of nonpartisan redistricting … and has publicly stated that the 2011 redistricting includes district maps that are [illegal,]” Eldridge said in court.
Benson is a Democrat who was elected in November and took over the Secretary of State office’s defense of the suit in January. The former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer, brought suit on behalf of the League of Women Voters against Benson’s predecessor, Ruth Johnson, a Republican.
Benson and Brewer had sought to settle the case in January by agreeing to redraw 11 House seats. But the three judges rejected the settlement Friday arguing that Benson can’t order districts to be redrawn since the law gives only the Legislature that right.
Benson’s refusal to defend the districts has drawn howls from Republicans, but they do have some common ground.
Attorneys for both said they will oppose any ruling in the case that results in special elections before normally scheduled ones in 2020.
League says gerrymandering hurts democracy
The first witness in the case, Sue Smith, contended democracy is hurt by that gerrymandering, the drawing political districts to give an unfair advantage to one party.
She is president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and lives in Ypsilanti, which is in a heavily Democratic district.
“No matter how I vote, a Democrat is going to win the general election,” said Smith, who identified herself as a regular Democratic voter.
“If I wasn’t packed in with so many Democrats in these districts, I may have more influence.”
The League of Women Voters, which bills itself as nonpartisan, became active in redistricting in 2011 after Smith said she attended a public forum in Lansing about the proposed redistricting.
Maps outlining the districts were too small to read. And bills describing the new districts were an indecipherable list of census tracts, Smith said.
“I couldn’t figure out what district I was in,” Smith said. “After sitting through the hearing, [with the] lack of transparency and lack of public involvement, that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, the League has got to get involved.’”
Experts in the trial will testify that Michigan’s political districts are among the most skewed toward Republicans in the nation, and “there is a real correlation between the confidence of voters in government and asymmetry [of districts] that results from the gerrymander,” said Yeager, an attorney for the League of Women Voters.
Republicans say there’s no case
There is little dispute about much of the evidence in the trial, including the partisan emails made public through the litigation.
But Republicans contend the U.S. District Court doesn’t have standing to hear the case because federal courts have yet to agree on whether gerrymandering to help one party is even illegal.
That’s an issue the U.S. Supreme Court is addressing later this spring in two cases involving redistricting in North Carolina and Maryland.
In every lawsuit involving gerrymandering, plaintiffs on both sides of the political aisle are “consistently wrong,” arguing that districts make it impossible to prevail while election results show otherwise, said Jason Torchinsky, an attorney for congressional Republicans.
That was also the case in Michigan, where Democrats swept state offices in November and picked up several seats in the Legislature, he argued.
“What more could the plaintiffs want?” Torchinsky asked.
Republicans argue plaintiffs waited far too long to bring the case, and their arguments that Democrats consistently get more votes for the Legislature but remain the majority don’t hold water.
In Michigan, Democrats predominantly live in southeast Michigan and have difficulty winning elections north of Bay City.
“Plaintiffs are here because they have a political geography problem, and they’re looking for the courts to solve it… but there’s no legal solution to a naturally occurring political geography problem,” Torchinsky said.
He acknowledged “it’s almost self-evident that every legislator wants to maintain his or her seat,” but that was a secondary consideration among the lawyers and consultants who drew Michigan’s political boundaries in 2011 to ensuring the lines met legal standards.
More Michigan gerrymandering stories:
- These maps show how Michigan Republicans kept power despite blue wave
- Gerrymandering is dying in Michigan. Of old age. No joke.
- Gerrymandering 101: How voters favor Dems, but GOP keeps Michigan Legislature
- Gerrymandered districts help Republicans keep control of Michigan Legislature
- How a shadow Republican group gerrymandered Michigan – sparking a backlash
- These Republican insiders split $1 million to design and defend Michigan 2011 maps
- Maps show how gerrymandering benefitted Michigan Republicans
- Emails suggest Republicans gerrymandered Michigan to weaken ‘Dem garbage’