GOP asks court to suspend gerrymandering order

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Map shows boundaries of Michigan's congressional districts since 2013.

Lansing — Michigan Republicans are asking a three-judge federal panel to put its own gerrymandering order on hold pending the outcome of similar cases the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of June.

Attorneys for congressional and statehouse lawmakers filed an emergency motion Friday asking the U.S. District Court to “stay” — or suspend — the judgement. They requested a swift decision by May 10.

It’s the latest GOP opposition to last week’s bombshell ruling, which requires Michigan officials to redraw at least 34 congressional and legislative districts for the 2020 election cycle and hold special elections two years early for the state Senate.

The three-judge panel, comprised of two Democratic appointees and one Republican appointee, ruled unanimously that current maps approved by the Legislature in 2011 are unconstitutional because they diluted the power of Democratic voters to entrench Republican power.

GOP lawmakers on Tuesday filed notice they will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Friday’s request to stay the ruling — or suspend it — could end up before the justices as well if the lower court judges reject it.

“We hope that the District Court will agree to wait for the Supreme Court to rule in the pending cases addressing the same issues at play here,” attorney Charlie Spies said in a statement. “We look forward to the Supreme Court resolving these cases.”

In the new filing, Spies and other attorneys argue the Michigan ruling hinges on legal theories that the Supreme Court is already considering in North Carolina and Maryland cases, including whether partisan gerrymandering claims can even be decided by courts.

A federal court on Friday also tossed out Ohio’s congressional map as an unconstitutional gerrymander, the latest in a series of similar rulings as the Supreme Court deliberates.

In Michigan, GOP attorneys argue last week’s ruling poses a “substantial encroachment into the state legislative process” by forcing lawmakers to draw new maps by Aug. 1.

The Michigan Constitution currently vests redistricting power in the Legislature — voters approved creation of an independent commission to draw new lines staring in 2022. But the order not only requires new maps, it requires lawmakers to provide to the court detailed rationales for any new districts it creates.

“Rather than reluctantly enter the political thicket of drawing districts, this Court has dove headfirst into the thicket,” GOP attorneys wrote in the Friday filing.

Current state senators were elected to serve through 2022, but forcing a special election in 2020 “will cut the terms of various state senators short,” they argued.

The Republican brief also notes that the Legislature would be required to approve new maps during an already busy period that includes budget negotiations, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed fuel tax hike and debate over no-fault auto insurance reforms.

At issue in the Michigan case are political maps approved by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 and signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Snyder for the 2012 elections.

The federal panel ruled that plan amounted to a gerrymander of “historical proportions” that violated the First and 14th Amendment rights of Democratic voters who filed suit.

Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the 2018 ballot initiative that will create a new independent redistricting commission for 2022, this week resumed fundraising efforts after Republicans appealed the Michigan order. 

"Michiganders do not deserve one more rigged election," Executive Director Nancy Wang said in a fundraising email, adding the group wants to "hold these politicians accountable to draw fair and impartial maps for the 2020 election."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Wednesday the Legislature is preparing to begin the redistricting process even if the Supreme Court temporarily suspends the order pending its decision in the North Carolina and Maryland cases.

“The most responsible thing for us to do is to pretend and act as if that Aug. 1 date is real, and that’s exactly how we intend to operate,” he said.

The order requires the Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor to agree to new maps by that time. If that does not happen, the three-judge panel would draw maps itself, likely using “special masters.”

The Senate is reviewing available resources and considering whether to hire various consultants, Shirkey said.

“There’s very few people in the Senate that have had any experience — and that includes staff — with this topic of redistricting,” he said. “So we actually have to staff up for the expertise necessary to make sense out of it.”