Feb. 1, 2019: Federal court scuttles Michigan gerrymandering deal, rejects trial delay
Jan. 25, 2019: Jocelyn Benson seeks to settle gerrymandering suit by redrawing House seats
Jan. 23, 2019: Gerrymandering settlement would give Michigan Dems hope, GOP despair
Editor's note: This story was updated Friday to reflect new criticism from the Michigan Republican Party about the prospect of a settlement.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Thursday she wants to settle a federal lawsuit that challenged the state’s legislative boundaries, a move that could force a redrawing of the state’s political map before the 2020 elections.
Benson, a Democrat, filed a brief in federal court agreeing to a delay in a trial set to begin in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Feb. 5.
Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, filed the case on behalf of the League of Women Voters in December 2017, alleging new methods of analyzing the fairness of legislative maps proved Michigan’s districts are among the most skewed toward Republicans in the nation.
The defendant in the case had been former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican. With Benson’s election in November, the office switched parties for the first time since 1994.
“It is clear the court has found significant evidence of partisan gerrymandering, and the likely outcome would not be favorable to the state,” Benson said in a press release. “It is therefore my responsibility to ensure a fair and equitable resolution for the citizens of Michigan that would save taxpayer money and ensure fair representation.”
Any settlement could involve redrawing all 14 congressional districts and more than 30 state Senate districts, which the suit alleged were unconstitutional.
It's still unclear who would redraw the lines. The task could fall to the Michigan Legislature, which is still controlled by Republicans, but Brewer, Benson and a three-judge panel presiding over the case would have to agree to the new maps. In court papers filed Thursday, Brewer wrote that both sides are "committed to reach a compromise." It's unclear what that could entail.
That prompted Republicans on Friday to accuse Benson of "pursuing a secret consent decree" to "draw new district lines designed to benefit Democratic candidates."
From the outside looking in, it appears the move simply paves the way for Benson, her own political party, and a group with which she has longstanding ties, to manipulate the state legislative and federal congressional districts for the 2020 election. There cannot be a fair and non-partisan settlement result from a Democrat-only closed-door process,” said Michael Pattwell, general counsel of the Michigan Republican Party.
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And because boundaries will be automatically redrawn in 2021, any settlement will only affect the the 2020 election.
In November, voters backed a proposal to turn the 2021 effort over to a citizens redistricting commission. A grassroots group, Voters Not Politicians got the issue on the ballot and then successfully advocated for the change, saying the existing boundaries were unfair.
Republicans have held both chambers of the Legislature for most of the last 20 years, despite rarely getting 50 percent of all votes. And they had a 9-5 edge in the Congressional delegation for several cycles until Democrats gained two seats in November, splitting the delegation 7-7.
During her campaign for secretary of state, Benson advocated for the anti-gerrymandering proposal and said she was best qualified to work with the new commission, which will be comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents.
“As a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in redistricting as a solution to end gerrymandering, I look forward to implementing an (Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission) in a way that is transparent, nonpartisan and effectively engages citizens across the state in the important task of drawing legislative districts that comply with state and federal law.” Benson said.
Before Benson’s election, the secretary of state’s office had defended the existing boundaries, drawn in 2011 and supported by the Republican-dominated legislature.
As the case has moved through the court docket, it has unearthed troves of emails showing Republicans worked with party consultants to draw districts that favored incumbent Republicans at the expense of Democrats.
In some emails, Republicans discussed drawing districts to “give the finger” to former Democratic Rep. Sander Levin and “cram ALL the Dem garbage” in four districts so that Republicans could control more districts statewide.
Brewer declined comment but filed a motion in federal court Thursday noting “there is a high likelihood that the Secretary of State and Plaintiffs will soon reach a settlement.”
The motions came a few days after an intervening defendant, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, filed an emergency request for a delay in the trial, saying the issues could be moot because the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to handle two separate gerrymandering districts that favor Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in North Carolina.
The high court is weighing whether gerrymandering for politically partisan purposes violates the law. A decision on those cases is due by June, a few months after the Michigan case would be decided if it still proceeds to trial.
Chatfield and other Michigan Republicans joined the Michigan case in late December, citing what they described as uncertainty over whether Benson would defend the case.