Michigan gerrymandering settlement focused on redrawing specific political districts

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Detail of Michigan Congressional maps approved by Republican-led Legislature in 2011.

Lansing — A pending settlement proposal in a federal lawsuit alleging unfair bias in political district maps will be limited in scope but could still give Democrats a narrow chance to upend Republican majorities in the Michigan Legislature. 

The suit alleges that maps approved by GOP majority lawmakers in 2011 intentionally diluted the power of Democratic voters. 

New Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and plaintiffs are negotiating "a compromise in which fewer than" 34 of the state's 162 congressional and legislative districts would be redrawn for 2020 elections, according to a new filing. It's not clear if proposed changes would have a ripple effect and impact other adjacent districts.

Plaintiff attorney Joseph Yeager disclosed broad outlines of the potential settlement Friday in a sworn deposition challenging Republican claims the deal is being negotiated in 'secret." He discussed the settlement with attorneys for GOP lawmakers in two phone calls and an email exchange, he said. 

Any proposed settlement would require approval by the three-judge panel overseeing the federal case. Michigan's Republican-led Legislature would have the first chance to propose new maps, but they would be subject to review by the court, which could reject them and decide an alternative method. 

New maps would only apply to 2020 and would likely require mid-term elections for state senators in redrawn districts who had been elected last fall to four-year terms. Michigan voters also approved a ballot measure creating an independent citizen commission that will draw new districts for 2022 and beyond. 

The League of Women Voters and several Democratic voters had initially sued over the entire apportionment plan approved by the GOP-led Legislature in 2011 but last year narrowed their complaint to 34 specific districts where plaintiffs or league members live. 

The revised suit challenges nine seats in the U.S. House, 10 seats in the Michigan Senate and 15 seats in the state House. Four of the congressional districts, six of the state Senate and seven of the state House districts are currently represented by Republicans. 

Michigan Democrats picked up two congressional seats in the 2018 mid-term election, and lawmakers from each party now represent seven districts in the U.S. House. Republicans won six-seat advantages in the state House and Senate but Democratic candidates got more collective votes statewide. 

Republicans have denied overt political bias in the district boundaries, but emails between map makers revealed in the federal case have included several partisan references and commentary on the prospects of maintaining GOP power.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, had defended the 2011 maps. But Benson, who took office Jan. 1, replaced Johnson as the named defendant in the case and said Thursday "it's clear the court has found significant evidence of partisan gerrymandering, and the likely outcome would not be favorable to the state."

Attorneys for Democratic plaintiffs and Republican lawmakers are both asking the court to delay a trial that is scheduled to start Feb. 5 but are fighting over allegations of misrepresentations in the court record. 

Yeager, one of the plaintiffs attorneys, said in a court filing last week that attorneys for the Republican lawmakers are aware of settlement talks with Benson but "have not chosen to participate in the discussion."

GOP attorneys on Friday called that claim "false" and suggested any settlement talks "have occurred in secret and without any offer to allow" participation by lawmakers who joined the case last year.

In a response filing Saturday, plaintiff attorneys called the GOP claims "as incorrect as they are unfortunate" and said the prospect of a settlement negotiation was discussed in phone calls and referenced in an email exchange. The filing included a sworn declaration from Yeager and several emails between the attorneys. 

"There's no such thing as a secret settlement here," said Mark Brewer, another attorney for the plaintiffs and a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. "Any settlement is going to have to be approved by the court."

Republicans have accused Benson and Brewer of trying to orchestrate a "blatant partisan power grab" by settling the case. 

GOP attorneys are asking the court to delay the February trial because the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments in similar gerrymandering cases out of North Carolina and Maryland.