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SCOTUS gerrymandering ruling likely to have ripple effect

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published July 15, 2019

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METRO DETROIT — A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 27 is likely to impact the redistricting timeline in Michigan.

The decision by the court looked at two specific cases: Republican-drawn districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland. Plaintiffs in those cases alleged violations of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Elections Clause and Article I of the Constitution.

The nation’s highest court essentially ruled that federal courts cannot intervene in partisan gerrymandering cases.

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan stated in a dissent.

“The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people,” the dissent continued. “These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.”

In a 146-page opinion issued by three federal court judges on April 25 of this year, they agreed with recent federal court judgments that “partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.” It was in response to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters, as well as numerous statewide Democrats.

The court ordered Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to conduct special elections in 2020 for certain specified Senate districts — adding that if both chambers of the Michigan Legislature didn’t pass a remedial plan that is signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by Aug. 1 of this year, then the court would draw remedial maps itself.

In November 2018, more than 61% of Michiganders voted to approve a constitutional amendment — dubbed as Proposal 18-2 — to form an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, formed of partisans and independents, which would redraw election districts.

This Supreme Court decision may impact that 2020 timeline and push it back to 2022.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today closes a vital door for citizens seeking recourse in a fundamental part of our representative democracy,” Benson said in a statement. “This decision makes it even more important that last fall Michigan voters took the process of drawing district lines out of the hands of politicians and placed it squarely in the hands of our citizens.”

The League of Women Voters, in its own statement, said the Supreme Court ruling “is disappointing and will allow those who rigged Michigan’s elections based on partisanship off the hook in federal courts.”

“The information we discovered about the extent of gerrymandering done in Michigan shows the abuse of power in the process,” the statement continued. “We look forward to educating voters on the importance of applying for the new redistricting commission. The League of Women Voters shined a light on how egregious the gerrymanders in our congressional and legislative districts are and we will continue fighting until every vote counts.” 

The Michigan Republican Party, on behalf of Chair Laura Cox, applauded the ruling, saying it “is a victory for the people of Michigan and upholds the concept of judicial restraint.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said the “unfortunate reasoning” behind the decision “should remind all Michiganders that elections have consequences.”

“This decision, while disappointing, is not surprising,” Barnes said. “To protect our rights, we must cast our votes for people that share our values and are concerned for the hard-working families of Michigan and their challenges.”

Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Nancy Wang said her organization was “dismayed and disappointed,” adding that lower court decisions were more formidable when it comes to bringing Michigan voters newer, fairer maps for 2020 elections.

“That being said, we are more committed than ever to redouble our efforts and get the word out on our new redistricting proposal approved in 2018 — to allow Michigan voters to be heard and have votes counted, starting with 2022 elections: fair, impartial and transparent,” Wang said.

She mentioned how voters in approximately 67 of 83 Michigan counties approved Proposal 18-2. Of those 67 counties, 48 of them went for both President Donald Trump and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette.

“That was something we were real heartened by in 2018,” Wang said. “This issue really united Michiganders from across the political spectrum and across the state, on the principle of fairness. I don’t think gerrymandering is something supported by Democrats and Republicans.”

VNP has conducted 34 town halls, informing the general public that the redistricting commission application process is likely to commence by year’s end, occurring simultaneously with the census.

Future litigation is up in the air, but Wang said VNP will take no such action. Rather, they are focusing on strengthening their case as to why state redistricting was approved by voters in the first place.

“Gerrymandering is just so insidious and really rigs our elections,” she said. “People are kind of uniting and understanding that this really undermines our democracy, and they’re battling it on multiple fronts.”