Redistricting panel ignores counsel, 'interprets' rules for individual maps

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan's redistricting commission Thursday set limits on when commissioners can submit individual proposed maps in the coming weeks — limitations that ignored the advice of their general counsel and may conflict with voter-approved constitutional language.

Commissioners voted to approve the motion Thursday as they finalized the proposed collaborative maps they will move into a 45-day public comment period followed by a final vote Dec. 30. 

"We're clarifying our interpretation of the statute, or of the constitutional amendment," said commission Chairwoman Rebecca Szetela, a non-affiliated member. "We are not rewriting or redefining the Constitution. We're just defining how we're going to interpret it."

Independent redistricting commission member Steven Lett, right, listens to a speaker.

In order to give final approval to a plan, commissioners must get a majority that includes at least two Republican, two Democratic and two non-affiliated commissioners to vote in favor of the map.

If that majority cannot be met on a congressional, state House or state Senate map after the 45-day public comment period, individual members could submit maps that didn't have to go through the 45-day comment period, General Counsel Julianne Pastula said.

Non-affiliated Commissioner Steven Lett and Szetela, both lawyers, disagreed with Pastula and called for a vote to "interpret" the constitutional language differently so individual submissions can be barred after the 45-day public comment period. 

"It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that we could come in at the end of 45 days and not agree upon a plan under the 2, 2 and 2 vote and then come up with totally new plans that nobody had looked at, nobody had debated," Lett said. 

Szetela agreed with Lett and argued the constitutional language also required the commission to provide public notice and 45 days public comment on any maps that are voted on — an end that would not be met under the later language in the Constitution.

"We can't just at the end of the day whip in and bring in any plan that has not gone through public comment," Szetela said. "I don't think that's consistent with what the spirit of the language is. I don't think it's consistent with the letter of the language."

Pastula disagreed and said there was no authorization for commissioners to submit individual maps for consideration ahead of the 45-day public comment period. At this stage in the redistricting process, the constitution only allows for submissions of individual maps if majority support cannot be reached after the 45-day public comment period on Dec. 30.

The commission by voting to allow submission of maps ahead of the 45-day comment period essentially is "adding language," Pastula said. 

"The language is not in the Constitution," she said. "Whether it makes sense or not is certainly an interesting discussion for another time."

Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat, agreed with Pastula, noting her interpretation had also been his.

Following the debate, Szetela and Lett recommended the commission set its own policy. Lett proposed two motions: One to allow commissioners to submit individual maps ahead of the 45-day public comment period, and another prohibiting the commission — in the event of a failure to get majority support for a map — from considering maps that haven't gone through the 45-day public comment period. The measures passed 9-3 and 8-4. They also voted 10-3 to create a noon Monday deadline for individual map submissions. 

"At the end of the day, as a commission, we ultimately decide how we think this reads and what we think we need to do," Szetela said.

Detroit Commissioners Brittni Kellom and Juanita Curry, both Democrats, and Commissioners Cynthia Orton and Rhonda Lange, both Republicans, expressed concern about the commission's decision and the speed with which the motion was pushed through. 

"We are not attorneys and we've done some interpretation of the law, and I just truly don't think it was our place," Kellom said. But, she also noted discomfort with the idea of introducing new maps without public comment at the end of the 45 days. "I don't think things should come across the table without the same scrutiny."

"I feel we do not have a right to limit commissioners if the constitution doesn't do that," Orton added. 

Curry criticized the vote occurring at the commission's 11th hour as it approached its final deadlines. 

"It's wrong," Curry said. "... We're going to have the whole state of Michigan throwing oranges at us."

"I think they're going to do that anyway, Commissioner Curry," Szetela responded.

The vote Thursday came as Attorney General Dana Nessel is reviewing the legality of actions the commission took last week when it entered into closed session to discuss attorney memos.

Sens. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, asked Nessel to review whether the decision was in keeping with constitutional language requiring all business to be conducted in open meetings.