Michigan redistricting panel closes meeting to public to discuss voting rights lawsuit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan's redistricting commission closed part of its Thursday meeting to the public to discuss what members said was pending litigation, the first time the panel has done so since the Michigan Supreme Court ruled it improperly closed an October meeting.

Commission Vice Chair M.C. Rothhorn told The Detroit News on Thursday the closed session was to discuss “pending litigation” from Detroit lawmakers regarding the fairness of the commission's redrawn state House, state Senate and U.S. House maps. 

“Basically, the lawyers are helping us understand what we need to understand as citizens trying to defend the maps that we created with public input,” Rothhorn said. “It’s pending litigation specific to this case."

A group of Detroit lawmakers filed suit in early January in the Michigan Supreme Court over redistricting maps they argue disenfranchise Black candidates and, by extension, Black voters. 

The maps the commission approved significantly decreased the number of majority-minority seats in the Michigan Legislature but also made gains in providing more partisan fairness toward Democrats, who have been subject to districts drawn by the Republican majority for decades. 

The panel believes the advice it received from its Voting Rights Act lawyer guided the creation of maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act, commission spokesman Edward Woods previously argued.  

In mid-December, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission violated the state Constitution by meeting in closed session in late October and keeping some legal memos from the public. The Detroit News and three other news organizations requested the documents and recordings after an Oct. 27 closed session where the commission discussed confidential legal memos with the titles "Voting Rights Act" and "The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and Its Influence on Voting."

In a 4-3 decision, the high court ruled the commission is required to conduct all of its business at open meetings and should have published seven of 10 legal memos that constituted "supporting materials" for map drawing under the Michigan Constitution. The four justice majority ordered recordings of the meeting be released along with the seven legal memos.

Republican attorney general hopeful Tom Leonard criticized the commission's move.

"Under strong scrutiny from a public disappointed with their work, the commission chose again to break the law and meet in secret," said Leonard, a former Michigan House speaker, in a statement. "They have to either be completely incompetent or in blatant disregard of our right to a fair and open process.” 

Supreme Court Justice David Viviano noted in the court's majority opinion that there could be an exception to close a meeting related to litigation. 

"...concluding that 'business' encompasses all ongoing litigation would result in a radically uneven playing field in court," Viviano wrote. "The litigants on the other side of the case would enjoy the ability to have confidential communications with their attorneys concerning the litigation, while the Commission would be forced to conduct its planning and strategizing in public."

When the redistricting commission closed the Thursday meeting to the public, a Detroit Free Press reporter tweeted photos showing the meeting room blocked off by office furniture. The meeting was closed for over an hour, according to the Free Press reporter.

“We want the transparency as bad as you all,” Rothhorn said after the meeting. “We already got challenged.”