Redistricting panel's legal contracts could add up to $1.5M

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan’s redistricting commission approved a contract Thursday of up to $750,000 with the law firm that will represent the commission’s maps in court if they are challenged, bringing the panel's legal budget to about $1.55 million.

The $750,000 contract with BakerHostetler will run through Aug. 31, 2022, in spite of some public opposition to the firm’s hire because of its past work for Republican clients.

The legal contracts come as Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission prepares for litigation challenging its maps and the timeline under which the maps are adopted. Late census data means the commission will be pushing out maps past the constitutionally mandated deadline for the House, Senate and congressional districts. 

From left, Commissioners Richard Weiss, Steven Lett and Dustin Witjes at the first local meeting of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Dearborn Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, Mich. on June 3, 2021.

The up to $1.55 million in legal contracts is equal to more than a third of the commission's $3.15 million fiscal year budget. Since most of the contracts are hourly, it's possible that the commission's legal fees could fall well below the maximum of $1.55 million or push commissioners to raise the cap.

The commission is retaining its right to petition the Legislature for more funding as it plans "a reasonable budget for legal services," commission spokesman Edward Woods said.

"Although more than 61% of Michigan voters approved empowering citizens to draw the district lines for Michigan’s congressional, House and Senate districts, we live in a litigious society," Woods said when asked for the reasoning behind the contracts. 

Besides the $750,000 Baker Hostetler contract, the commission also is expected to put out a request for proposals this week for local litigation counsel with a budget of up to $250,000. 

Existing contracts for legal counsel include a $150,000 contract with the group’s general counsel, Julianne Pastula; an up to $350,000 year-long contract with Voting Rights Act consultant Bruce Adelson; and a nearly $50,000 paralegal services contract with Robert Half Government. 

One redistricting expert opined it still may be premature to begin hiring litigation counsel. Instead, the commission should be relying on its Voting Rights Act consultant, general counsel and data mapping experts, said Bob LaBrant, the former longtime legal adviser to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce who was instrumental in past Republican redistricting efforts.

"I’m skeptical as to why we’re budgeting so much money on litigation," LaBrant said. "Let’s draw the maps in accord with the constitutional amendment and see what happens.”

The commission voted 9-2 to hire the firm, BakerHostetler, earlier this month after hours of public comment, an interview with the firm and deliberation over its hire. Among those opposed to the hire was Voters Not Politicians, the ballot committee that helped approve the creation of the commission in 2018. 

Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan raised concerns about BakerHostetler’s hire, particularly after commission member Doug Clark remarked at a meeting that he’d had conversations with two people from the D.C. area who recommended the firm. 

“The hiring of this Republican, gerrymandering law firm was contentious, with a litany of public comments opposed to the partisan hire,” said Sam Inglot, deputy director for Progress Michigan. “It appears Clark did not listen to those comments, but put plenty of stock in his conversations with people from Washington, D.C.”

Woods said Clark’s conversations were with Kim Brace and John Morgan, data experts hired by the commission to help with the mapping process. 

“As you already know, (Election Data Services) is the mapping consultant for the commission,” Woods said. “Consequently, this is fully compliant and within the rules for commission members.”