Michigan Supreme Court to hear arguments in redistricting secrecy case

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in a case between three media outlets, including The Detroit News, and the state's redistricting commission, spurred by a closed-door session the panel had on Oct. 27.

The state's high court issued an order Thursday scheduling oral arguments for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has until Monday to respond to the lawsuit from The News, Bridge Michigan, the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Press Association, according to the court's order.

Michigan's redistricting commission meets behind closed doors on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The session took place inside Michigan State University's student union building in East Lansing.

"The Constitution plainly commands that the commission 'shall conduct all of its business at open meetings,'" the lawsuit dated Tuesday said. "The term 'shall' makes the command mandatory."

It added, "The voters chose precise and certain constitutional language on this point; the language leaves no discretion for the commission to conduct only some of its business in open meetings."

The legal battle could set a precedent for how the commission handles sensitive information going forward. This is the first time the redistricting commission has functioned since voters approved a constitutional amendment to create it in 2018.

Commission members are drawing districts for the next 10 years, based on 2020 Census data.

The redistricting commission on Oct. 27 entered a more than hour-long non-public session to discuss undisclosed memos titled "Voting Rights Act" and "The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and Its Influence on Voting."

The session came after lawmakers and residents criticized the commission at prior hearings about the lack of majority minority districts in the proposed maps, which they argued wouldn't ensure the election of enough Black and other minority lawmakers and potentially violated the Voting Rights Act.

The emergency complaint from the media outlets sought recordings from the Oct. 27 closed-door session and several confidential memos submitted to the commission

Commission officials have maintained the memos from their legal counsel were protected from release and couldn't be discussed at a public meeting because of attorney-client privilege.

Edward Woods, a commission spokesman, responded to the lawsuit by saying the group looked forward "to asserting its right to attorney-client privilege in court." Woods also noted the commission has livestreamed 133 regular meetings and public hearings since it began its work. 

"We are not surprised or distracted by this lawsuit and will continue our mission to draw fair maps through public engagement openly and transparently," Woods said.

The lawsuit came three weeks ahead of the commission's planned vote on final drafts of Michigan's voting district maps for the state House, state Senate and Congress.

The suit also followed the commission's 7-5 vote last week against releasing the memos discussed during the closed-door meeting. The 13-member panel was told by its lawyer that publishing the documents would be a "self-inflicted" wound, would hamper attorney-client privilege and would potentially create future legal problems as the commission faces expected litigation over its maps.