Federal court: Michigan political maps illegally rigged to 'historical proportions'

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

Detroit — Michigan must redraw legislative and congressional districts for the 2020 election because current maps drawn by Republicans represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions,” a three-judge federal panel ruled Thursday.

The blockbuster ruling — which a legislative leader said Republicans will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — requires Michigan to conduct special state Senate elections for certain seats next year, cutting in half the four-year terms that current lawmakers are now serving.

The “predominate purpose” of the redistricting plan approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2011 “was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” said the unanimous decision written by U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“Therefore, the enacted plan constitutes a durable partisan gerrymander" that violates the First and 14th Amendment rights of plaintiff voters, the court concluded.

The panel is giving the Republican-led House and Senate until Aug. 1 to redraw the maps and get them signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The judges said they want all the parties and processes used in the redistricting process to be made public, including any alternative plans that the Legislature rejects.

If state officials do not finalize new maps by then, the federal court would draw new boundaries itself and could appoint a special master to do so. 

But a pending decision from the High Court involving two other states may make Thursday's Michigan ruling moot.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and some aggrieved Democrats. The complaint was eventually narrowed down to target 34 of the state’s 162 congressional and legislative districts that would need to be redrawn, along with any bordering districts they impact. 

The state's current boundaries dilute the weight of Democratic voters by "packing or cracking" them into certain districts, the panel ruled.

“Partisan gerrymandering can injure voters’ First Amendment rights by subjecting members of the disfavored party to discrimination because of their viewpoints,” Clay wrote.

Joining Clay in the decision was Detroit U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, who was also appointed by Clinton, and Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist, an appointee of Republican former President George H.W. Bush.

High court appeal certain

The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard oral arguments in alleged partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland and "will be ruling in the coming months on the exact issue at play here," said attorney Charlie Spies, who is representing Republicans in the Michigan case.

"We will likely seek a stay and urge caution in drawing conclusions from this opinion, which we believe is at odds with where the Supreme Court will end up.”

The High Court's conservative majority has been wary of having federal judges decide when electoral district maps are too partisan. During arguments last month, the five conservative justices asked repeatedly whether unelected judges should police the partisan actions of elected officials.

GOP lawmakers had sought to dismiss the Michigan case, and their attorneys argued that the strong performance by Democrats in the 2018 election proved the maps were not as biased as experts claimed. Democrats flipped two congressional seats, five seats in the 38-member Michigan Senate and five seats in the 110-member state House. 

But the judicial panel noted that in areas like Congressional District 11, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills won an open seat that had been held by a Republican, even historic turnout did not fully erase signs of partisan bias.

Republicans have denied overt political bias in the map-making process. But email communications by staff entered into evidence in the federal lawsuit included partisan references and commentary on the prospects of maintaining GOP power, including a request to "cram Dem garbage" into certain districts and praise for "giving the finger" to a Democratic lawmaker.

Judges said their conclusion was based on far more than “off-hand comments,” but was informed by expert evidence, the testimony of map makers and key legislators, staffers and a “wide range” of documentary evidence, including emails, agenda minutes and handwritten notes.

“The breadth of evidence of discriminatory intent, from these multifarious sources, renders Senate intervenors’ ‘legislative intent’ argument meritless,” Clay wrote.

Senate terms cut short?

Michigan’s Republican-led Senate and House had both moved to intervene in the case after Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took office and proposed a limited settlement that the court rejected.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the chamber is "reviewing the details of the ruling and will file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court" but "will prepare to comply with this most recent ruling while we await the outcome of the appeal."

Because of Michigan's strict term limits law, it's possible senators like Shirkey who have already been elected to a maximum two terms would be ineligible to run for their seats again if their districts are redrawn and their current four-year term cut short. 

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a second-term Flint Democrat whose 27th District must be withdrawn under the decision, said he expects there will still be “a lot of legal process” in the weeks and months ahead.

“If, at the end of the day, we’re to run in 2020, we will run robust races as we always have done," he said. 


Benson's agreement with plaintiffs, which the court rejected in February, would have only required reconfiguration of 11 state House districts and others affected by those changes. The Detroit Democrat had urged the court not to required new boundaries for the Senate, suggesting special elections could be overly disruptive. 

But Thursday's ruling "confirms that these Michigan state House and Senate and U.S. congressional districts are unconstitutional," Benson said in a statement.

"I respect that decision, as should we all. As the state’s chief election officer, I’m committed to working with the Legislature, citizens and the court to ensure the new districts comply with our U.S. Constitution.”

Targeted seats

A mixture of Democratic and Republican congressional seats are affected. The redrawn U.S. House seats would target five Republicans and four Democrats, including Metro Detroit U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. 

Mostly Republican seats would be impacted among the 15 targeted state House seats. Three seats are from Metro Detroit: Reps. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township; Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township; and Mike Mueller, R-Lindon, whose district includes a part of northern Oakland County.

A slim majority of six of the 10 affected Senate seats are held by Republicans. Six Metro Detroit senators would be impacted, including Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township; Michael McDonald, R-Macomb Township; Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield; Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills; Ruth Johnson, R-Holly; and Lana Theis, R-Brighton.

Other seats would likely be affected as well as boundaries shift. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, noted that the ruling did not challenge the validity of his 2nd Congressional District, which he said is not gerrymandered. But he acknowledged the litigation has the potential to affect every district in the state.

“Judges and courts should not be in the business of drawing legislative boundaries,” Huizenga said in a statement. “I believe this ruling will be appealed and the underlying litigation will continue to work it’s way through the courts.”

New political maps could give Democrats a narrow chance next year to flip control of the House and Senate, where Republicans currently enjoy six-seat advantages. But they would only apply to 2020 because a new voter-approved independent citizen commission will draw new districts in future election cycles.

Judy Karandjeff, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, issued a brief statement that said the group is "very pleased that the federal court today upheld all 34 of our challenges to congressional, state Senate and state House maps" and looks forward to a remedy by 2020.