Supreme Court delays redrawing districts in Michigan gerrymandering case

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a stay in an case on appeal regarding partisan redistricting in Michigan.

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a temporary hold on a federal court order to redraw legislative and congressional districts in Michigan by August.

The justices on Friday issued a brief order that stayed the April 25 decision pending the disposition of the appeal of the case or further order by the court. 

Republican lawmakers two weeks ago filed an emergency request asking the Supreme Court to suspend the judgment of the lower court, pending the outcome of similar cases that the justices are expected to decide by July. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments in March in alleged partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland.

The high court's five conservative justices asked at oral arguments whether unelected judges should police the partisan actions of elected officials.

The court is simply holding off on the Michigan case, including deciding the appeal, until it rules in the North Carolina and Maryland cases, said Robert Sedler, a constitutional law expert and professor at Wayne State University Law School.

"It’s not surprising that the court stayed this case until it decides the cases from North Carolina and Maryland," Sedler said. 

"That will determine whether the claim in this case — that the Constitution prohibits political gerrymandering — is a viable claim. This is what the court typically does when the result in a lower court case is going to be controlled by cases that the court is already hearing."

Depending on what the Supreme Court does in the two other cases, he said, one possibility is the justices could send the Michigan case back to the lower court for reconsideration in light of the high court’s upcoming decision.

Michigan's Republican lawmakers had requested the stay in response to a three-judge panel that ruled unanimously last month that current statehouse and congressional maps approved by the Legislature in 2011 are unconstitutional because they diluted the power of Democratic voters in an effort to ensure GOP power.

The ruling would have required Michigan officials to redraw by Aug. 1 nearly thee dozen congressional and legislative districts for the 2020 election cycle and to hold special elections two years early for the state Senate. 

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

Lawyers for the Republican lawmakers had argued that state legislators wouldn't have sufficient time to redraw the maps by the District Court's deadline, in addition to passing a budget and legislation on auto insurance and infrastructure.

“The stay is good news for Michigan taxpayers and allows us to wait for the Supreme Court’s upcoming substantive decision regarding whether courts must stay out of the political redistricting process," said attorney Charlie Spies, who is representing Republicans in the Michigan case.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and some aggrieved Democrats.

Their complaint was 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 the redrawing would affect. 

The Supreme Court's order could also potentially delay the process of redrawing the challenged districts in Michigan for the duration of the Republicans' appeal in the case, not just until the justices rule in the North Carolina and Maryland matters.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had argued in court filings that the justices should deny the requested stay because it would have the effect of denying Michigan voters the chance to vote in "constitutionally drawn" districts in 2020. 

"If the district court’s judgment is stayed but ultimately affirmed ... that

final disposition would not occur before 2020," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.

"By then, drawing new districts before statutory candidate-filing deadlines would be nearly impossible." 

Alternatively, they argued that the justices should wait to rule on the stay request until after the North Carolina and Maryland gerrymandering cases are decided this summer. 

"We are disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision to put on hold the lower court’s requirement that the legislature redraw Michigan’s district maps for the 2020 elections," said Nancy Wang, executive director of the group Voters Not Politicians.

Her group last year led a successful petition drive to have an independent commission start to draw political boundaries beginning in the 2022 election cycle instead of state lawmakers.

"The three-judge panel unanimously found the current maps are a gerrymander 'of historic proportions,'" Wang added. 

"We remain committed to doing everything in our power to ensure the new redistricting process is successful so Michigan voters are not subjected to maps that are rigged against them."

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox applauded the court's ordering of a stay and called the lawsuit a "desperate attempt by partisan Democrats to redraw our state’s legislative lines two years early."

"This will allow our Legislature to continue focusing on getting things done for the people of Michigan, instead of unnecessary partisan battles over political maps," Cox said.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said she was "more than disappointed" in the Supreme Court's decision, "but we will not allow Republican gerrymandering or efforts to silence our citizens at the ballot box stand in the way of Democrats connecting with every Michigan voter."

“The people of Michigan have already spoken, and they want fair elections and their voices heard — not after the next election, not down the road — now," Barnes said. 

In February, the Supreme Court through Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied a Republican request to delay a trial in the case pending the high court's consideration of the separate gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina.