Federal court rules partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional

Decision of ‘historical proportions’ appealed

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published May 7, 2019

Shutterstock image

LANSING — A major federal court ruling regarding gerrymandering may impact statewide elections as soon as 2020. However, the decision may go in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

On April 25, a three-judge panel composed of Denise Page Hood, Gordon Quist and Eric Clay issued a 146-page opinion agreeing with federal court judgments in recent years that “partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Michigan League of Women Voters and numerous Democrats.

“We find that the Enacted Plan violates plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it deliberately dilutes the power of their votes by placing them in districts that were intentionally drawn to ensure a particular partisan outcome in each district,” the judges stated in their opinion.

In this case, the three judges state that Republicans “engaged in a national effort to ensure that states redrew their congressional lines” during the 2011 redistricting cycle to favor Republican candidates while simultaneously putting Democrats at a disadvantage.

It was described as “a political gerrymander of historical proportions.”

The plaintiffs challenged 34 statewide Congressional and legislative districts as “unconstitutionally cracked or packed,” including Congressional Districts 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12; Senate Districts 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 22, 27, 32 and 36; and House Districts 24, 32, 51, 52, 55, 60, 62, 63, 75, 76, 83, 91, 92, 94 and 95.

Judges found that plaintiffs had established legal precedent in 27 of the 34 targeted districts, based on various criteria. Those that failed to establish unconstitutionality include Senate Districts 10, 22 and 32, and House Districts 52, 62, 76 and 92.

“Specifically, the map-makers and legislators discriminated against Democratic voters by diluting the weight of their votes because these voters had voted for Democrats, rather than Republicans, in previous elections,” the judges summarized.

As a result, the court ordered Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to conduct special elections in 2020 for the specified challenged Senate districts, and for any Senate district affected by any remedial map approved by the court.

Also, the court said that if both chambers of the Michigan Legislature don’t pass a remedial plan that is signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by Aug. 1 of this year — or if required materials are not filed by that date — then the court will draw remedial maps itself.

“The court’s ruling confirms that these Michigan state House and Senate and U.S. congressional districts are unconstitutional,” Benson said in a statement. “I respect that decision, as should we all.

“As the state’s chief election officer, I’m committed to working with the Legislature, citizens and the court to ensure the new districts comply with our U.S. Constitution.”

Appeal in the highest court

Sue Smith is the redistricting director for the League of Women Voters at the state level. She is also the past president of the organization.

She said the LWV first became adept at the tactics of gerrymandering during 2011 when, as the federal judges cited in their opinion, district maps were being passed by the Michigan Legislature. She said, “no matter which party is in power, they draw the lines which will keep them in power.”

“I realized that because it was such a secretive process with no meaningful public input and no transparency, this was an issue the state LWV needed to get involved in,” Smith continued.

In the years since, Smith and other LWV members have traveled the state and have spoken to citizens, explaining how redistricting affects the electoral process. It ultimately led to the passing of Proposal 2 in November 2018.

“(The judges’ opinion) is a great victory for Michigan voters and for democracy,” she said. “The state Legislature is going to draw new maps before the 2020 election, and these new maps will move the state closer to ensuring that voters are picking their representatives, and not the other way around.”

After the opinion was issued April 25, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, vowed to challenge it.

“The Senate is reviewing the details of the ruling and will file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Shirkey said in a statement April 25. “We will prepare to comply with this most recent ruling while we await the outcome of the appeal.”

Court records indicate that on April 30, the Michigan Senate — as well as individual Sens. Jim Stamas, R-Midland; Lana Theis, R-Brighton; and Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth — filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. No details accompanied the appeal.

At press time, Smith said she hadn’t had the opportunity to read the appeal, so she couldn’t comment on it. However, she expected the decision would reach SCOTUS “one way or another.”

She hopes precedent will follow similar gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina, which also went to the highest court in the land.

“In any event, the court will assure we have fairer maps than we do now,” she said.