Supreme Court weighs request for Michigan redistricting delay as opponents argue it isn't needed

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A group charged with redrawing Michigan's voting boundaries urged the Michigan Supreme Court Monday to give its blessing to a deadline delay for voting maps that will guide the state's elections for the next decade. 

The group requested the 72-day delay to the Nov. 1 deadline because of a delay in census data that they say will make the deadline impossible to meet. 

But some justices said the request may be premature — given that the deadline has yet to be missed — and questioned whether the high court could so easily alter constitutional language approved by voters in 2018. 

"We’ll just rewrite the constitution a little bit here and a little bit over there until we get it just right," mused Justice David Viviano. "This august body will take over for the people because it's about who gets it right.

"Do we get to make the determination or do the people of the state of Michigan who voted for this amendment?" he said.

The Michigan Hall of Justice, also known as the Michigan Supreme Court building, in Lansing.

Deputy Solicitor General Ann Sherman argued the six-month census data delay was unprecedented and merited the high court's involvement in a preemptive way. The November deadline is merely an administrative tool, not substantive to the process of redrawing lines, Sherman said.

"The most important thing here is protecting the redistricting process the people enshrined in the constitution," she said.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in the coming weeks.

The Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission filed suit in April, asking the Michigan Supreme Court for more time to draw Michigan's new voting maps because of delays with the U.S. Census. 

The U.S. Census Bureau told states earlier this year that the new census data needed to redraw voting districts won't be available until Sept. 30, more than six months after it is usually completed in March. 

The commission's lawsuit seeks a delay that would allow the 13-member redistricting panel 72 days after receiving the census data to draw maps and then another 45 days for public comment before a final vote. The proposed timeline would push final approval of Michigan's state House, state Senate and congressional districts to on or before Jan. 25, 2022. 

The bureau's delays clashed with the timeline the commission is supposed to follow under the 2018 Constitutional amendment that created the commission. The amendment requires the new maps to be available for public comment for 45 days before the Nov. 1 deadline for voting and approving maps. That would require maps to be available to the public by Sept. 17, 13 days ahead of the Sept. 30 release of census data. 

Julianne Pastula, a lawyer for the commission, said the group would get legacy data — essentially unsorted, untabulated census data — about a month and a half ahead of the U.S. Census Bureau's official, sorted population data. A consultant planned to sort the data by Aug. 26, allowing 22 days ahead of the Sept. 17 deadline for releasing the maps for public comment. 

But Pastula indicated the legacy data could be unreliable without the official data to back it up.

"It is critical to understand that the legacy data is just not a preference of the commission," Pastula said. "It does not meet the constitutional standards set forth.”

Kyla Barranco, an assistant attorney general who argued in opposition to the delay, said the commission could meet the Sept. 17 deadline for public comment by using the legacy data to guide the maps. The 22-day turnaround was "not preferred," but still possible, she said.

Unless and until the commission misses the Nov. 1 deadline, there's nothing for the court to decide, Barranco added. 

"This court has long taken the stance that it doesn’t decide abstract questions or cases that lack an actual controversy or cases that simply seek guidance for future litigants," Barranco said. "The judicial power limits this court to deciding genuine controversies and there simply isn’t one here.”

John Bursch, an attorney for the Michigan Senate GOP arguing in opposition to the delay, echoed Barranco's stance and noted that by pushing back the deadline the court would limit the time window available for residents to challenge the final redrawn maps in court.

“We want to give the maximum amount of time that the people wanted to give in order for there to be challenges in case they go off the rails and this truly is not a non-partisan redistricting commission," Bursch said.