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Groups hoping to upend Michigan's new redistricting commission faced a setback as a judge said they weren't likely to succeed in arguing the commission violated their constitutional rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff denied the Republican groups' push for an immediate pause on the redistricting commission and countered their arguments that certain conditions for serving on the commission were unconstitutional.

Those conditions ban political party officials, lobbyists, consultants and their relatives from being on the commission that will begin drawing Michigan's legislative district lines after the 2020 election.

"The eligibility provisions at issue do not impose severe burdens on plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights," Neff wrote in her opinion released Monday. "There is no right to state office or appointment."

Excluding certain individuals from the commission "furthers a legitimate state interest in establishing a fair and impartial redistricting process," added Neff, who serves in Michigan's Western District and was nominated by former President George W. Bush.

Tony Daunt, the executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund and the lead plaintiff in one of two cases challenging the commission, said he plans to appeal the decision.

"The entire thing should be stopped," said Daunt, a Republican Party official, reiterating his belief that the commission violates his rights.

Michigan voters approved the independent redistricting commission through a statewide ballot proposal in November 2018.

The commission takes the job of redrawing legislative districts away from state lawmakers. The 13-member citizen commission will feature four self-identified Republicans, four self-identified Democrats and five self-identified independents.

The Michigan Republican Party and a group of other plaintiffs had filed lawsuits hoping to immediately halt the commission's processes because of the requirements that certain individuals be excluded from serving on the commission.

They argued that the exclusions violated their First Amendment rights by denying them "a membership benefit and a quantifiable economic benefit." Members of the commission will be paid $40,000.

They also argued that the exclusions violated their rights to equal protection. And the Michigan Republican Party said the commission's setup discriminated against certain viewpoints by giving more seats to individuals not affiliating with a political party than to individuals affiliating with either the Republican or the Democratic parties.

But Neff rejected the arguments in a 46-page opinion in two combined cases. The judge said the reasons for the eligibility provisions were "more than sufficient to justify" them.

She also wrote that the plaintiffs in the cases don't "belong to any suspect classification such as race or religion." Instead, she wrote, the plaintiffs are "partisan candidates or elected officials, political party officers, paid political consultants, legislative employees, lobbyists and/or certain close relatives of the same."

While the legal fight isn't over, Voters Not Politicians, the group that backed the independent redistricting commission ballot proposal in 2018, celebrated Neff's decision.

The group added that applications for serving on the commission will be open through June 1, 2020.

"The court was right to reject the attempt by the plaintiffs to use the courts to thwart the will of the people," added Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, a national nonprofit that supports the redistricting commission.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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