Michigan Supreme Court dismisses Voting Rights Act challenge of redistricting maps

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday denied a request by the Detroit legislative caucus to redraw Michigan's new voting maps, finding the caucus didn't prove the decrease in majority-minority districts violated federal protections for minority voters.

The 4-3 decision noted that expert analysis showed White crossover voting made it possible to elect a preferred minority candidate even without a majority-minority district. 

"This evidence of White crossover voting — unrebutted by plaintiffs' expert — reinforces our conclusion that plaintiffs have not made the threshold showing of White bloc voting," that would trigger the need for majority-minority districts, according to the court's majority that included Justices Bridget McCormack, Beth Clement, Megan Cavanagh and Elizabeth Welch.

In other redistricting challenges, which historically questioned the work of mapmaking done behind closed doors, further analysis and research might be necessary for the Detroit Caucus to make a proper argument for their case, the order said.

But the high court noted the Detroit Caucus stated several times at oral argument that it had no plans to provide further evidence of its belief that the decrease in majority-minority districts was contrary to the Voting Rights Act. 

And, the order said, "the commission's work has been an open and public process as required" by the Michigan Constitution. 

The decision stemmed from a Detroit Caucus challenge of redistricting maps approved by the commission in late December that break up long-held Black majority districts in Detroit to merge them with White Democratic-leaning suburbs. 

The commission drew the districts as such to give the Detroit area more Democratic-leaning districts — a reflection of the political makeup in parts of the region. The effort sought to reverse alleged "packing" of Black voters that occurred under past Republican-led map drawing. 

The commission's work resulted in no majority-Black districts in the congressional map, zero in the state Senate map and seven in the state House map. But the new maps did make gains in providing more partisan fairness toward Democrats, who had been subject to maps drawn by the Republican majority in the Legislature for at least two decades.

Some Detroit leaders have argued that the commission went too far and in effect diluted the vote of Black Detroiters, making it difficult if not impossible to get a candidate of color through Democratic primaries. 

Justices Brian Zahra, David Viviano and Richard Bernstein argued in their dissent that the dismissal was "premature" and merited further analysis. The case came to the high court as an "original action," meaning it didn't have the benefit of analysis or discovery in the lower courts.

"We would appoint an independent expert to assist the court in assessing the evidence and factual assertions presented thus far and any additional evidence the parties would develop and submit for review," the justices wrote. 

The Detroit Caucus' arguments should proceed in court and merit further expert analysis to examine the claims, especially considering delays in the final approval of the maps because of lags in census data at the front end of map development, the dissent said. 

But the court rule governing the case, they noted, doesn't have a defined process to develop facts and instead faults "plaintiffs for their failure to present evidence that we never requested or required them to present." 

"Procedure matters," according to the dissent. "People care about how their cases are handled and whether they had a fair opportunity to be heard."

Instead, the court's procedure in the Detroit Caucus case, the dissent said, "does not accord with any notion of fair play. The majority's decision today will do much to undermine the public's confidence that this court will take seriously original complaints filed in our court."