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Supreme Court ruling to push state redistricting efforts back

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published October 28, 2019

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LANSING — On Oct. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to redraw Michigan’s 34 congressional legislative districts that plaintiffs found to be “unconstitutionally cracked or packed.”

In April, a three-judge panel, composed of Denise Page Hood, Gordon Quist and Eric Clay, issued a 146-page opinion declaring that “partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.” The lawsuit was filed by the League of Women Voters and other Democratic plaintiffs.

The trio of judges opined that a 2011 redistricting cycle meant to favor Republicans was “a political gerrymander of epic proportions.” The court then 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 late June, however, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that federal courts cannot intervene in partisan gerrymandering cases. The decision, recognized as Rucho vs. Common Cause, was based upon 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.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the June opinion. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”

In her dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan said, “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”

Now, rather than the effects of the Michigan voter-approved redistricting ballot initiative in 2018, known as Proposal 18-2, an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will affect congressional and legislative districts starting in 2022.

Due to the U.S. Supreme Court opinion this summer, it’s not exactly a surprise for statewide groups that were original proponents of redistricting.

“The U.S. Supreme Court decision was expected and is a follow-up to last summer’s decision in the Rucho v. Common Cause case, which stated federal courts didn’t have jurisdiction in partisan gerrymandering,” Michigan League of Women Voters President Christina Schlitt said on behalf of the organization. “The Supreme Court vacated the decision and remanded it back to the federal district court. The Michigan League of Women Voters continues to support efforts to fully implement the Michigan Redistricting Commission and the voter-approved election reforms that passed in November 2018.”

Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Nancy Wang said in a statement that the group “is committed to doing all that we can to support Michigan’s citizen-driven process, and reform efforts in other states.”

“Thanks to the work of the League of Women Voters in this case, the public now knows what happens behind closed doors when politicians and special interests have the power to manipulate election district maps for partisan political gain,” Wang said. “The U.S. Supreme Court’s unwillingness to protect voters from extreme partisan gerrymandering underscores the importance of citizen-led initiatives.”

A statement provided by the office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said, “Secretary Benson and her administration continue to work to carry out the will of Michigan voters and create an independent citizens redistricting commission.”

More than 61% of state voters approved the constitutional amendment in November 2018, of which partisans and independents would redraw election districts as part of the redistricting commission.