Activists raise alarm about legal team floated for Michigan's redistricting panel

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Activists are sounding the alarm over Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission's consideration of a law firm they say has been instrumental in fighting for gerrymandered voting districts. 

The commission could vote as early as Thursday on the contract for litigation counsel with Mark Braden and BakerHostetler, prompting concerns from individuals familiar with the firm's past work. 

Among the critics was David Daley, the author of anti-gerrymander books "Unrigged: How Americans are battling back to save democracy" and "Ratf**ked: Why your vote doesn't count."

Daley cited the firm's defense of "GOP gerrymanders" in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia as proof the firm was "infamous for advising and defending some of the most egregious GOP gerrymanders of the last decade." The firm's work in those cases was stated in its bid to the commission. 

"This is outrageous and the addition of aggressive GOP pro-gerrymandering lawyers would corrupt a commission voters established to put an end to gerrymandering — before it even drew a single line," Daley wrote on Twitter.

Pam Weinstein, 74, of Rosedale Park speaks at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting for public comments at the TCF Center in Detroit on June 17, 2021.

Voters Not Politicians, the group that worked to pass a 2018 ballot proposal creating the redistricting commission, urged the commission to take more time. 

"We strongly encourage the commission to solicit more proposals so it can evaluate multiple submissions in a measured and thoughtful manner and continue to build the public's trust as it has done so well," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians. "There are many firms that are well qualified and experienced in redistricting litigation, but that do not have a history of defending partisan and racial gerrymandering."

The firm was the sole bidder for the position and the commission plans to interview BakerHostetler at Thursday's meeting. Braden and BakerHostetler lawyer Katherine McKnight did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

"We sent out two requests for litigation counsel," said Edward Woods III, a spokesman for the commission. "Unfortunately, no one responded the first time, and they are the only firm that responded this time. As always, we welcome and consider public input in making our decisions openly and transparently."

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson didn't reference the potential contract directly but reminded people on social media Monday that the commission is independent. 

"Any Michigander wishing to weigh in on their decisions or inform their deliberations can do so at their meetings or via their online portal," Benson wrote on Twitter

The law firm said in its proposal that it has no employees in Michigan, with most who would work for the commission hailing from Washington, D.C., or Cleveland.

Braden — who was described by the firm as providing "strategic legal advice to legislators and other redistricting stakeholders around the country for several decades" — charges $915 an hour. Other lawyers in the firm who would perform work for the commission charge between $355 and $670.

"BakerHostetler’s political law team has worked with the best data and map drawing experts in the field of redistricting who understand the complexities of Census 2020 data and are at the forefront of cutting edge map analysis techniques," the firm said in its proposal. "These relationships will bring significant value to the commission as it addresses map drawing and map analysis using the delayed Census 2020 data."

The 13-member commission, which is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five people who don't affiliate with a party, discussed the bid from BakerHostetler at its Aug. 5 meeting

Douglas Clark, a Republican commissioner from Rochester Hills, noted the firm's rates were in line with other major law firms. He also said the group contributed to Republicans and Democrats alike, but appeared to align more with the Republican Party. 

"We only got one response back," Clark said. "So that brings forward the question, do we need to look at others? Or try to get people to respond? Or accept this as a recommendation going back to the commission for approval?"

Still, Clark said the firm appeared "well qualified" for the work and recommended the firm be brought in for an interview.

Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democratic commission member from Ypsilanti, argued that the commission had time to seek more bids.

"One firm isn't really a choice," Witjes said. "It's going to be a minute before we actually have any litigation I imagine. ... What would be the harm of trying to send out another RFP with a little bit laxer requirements to try and get another firm?"