Michigan Supreme Court rejects challenge to state House map that claimed GOP bias

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Supreme Court rejected Friday a lawsuit from community advocacy groups that alleged the state's new House district lines unfairly favored Republicans.

The decision by a court with a Democratic majority was a victory for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The 13-member panel completed its inaugural round of drawing legislative maps at the end of 2021.

The court said in its order, which indicated only two of the seven justices dissented, that it was "not persuaded it should grant" the relief requested by League of Women Voters of Michigan, Detroit Action, Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote and other organizations.

"Plaintiffs have not sustained their burden to show that the map for the Michigan House of Representatives ... adopted by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission ... failed to comply with constitutional requirements," Justice Megan Cavanagh wrote in a concurring statement.

The plaintiffs, she added, had failed to address the commission's legal obligation to weigh partisan advantage along with other criteria, including considering communities of interest. 

Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack signed onto Cavanagh's comments. They were both nominated by Democrats.

Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on Michigan's high court but were divided on how to handle the redistricting lawsuit. 

Justice Elizabeth Welch, who was also nominated by Democrats, wrote a dissent,  contending the court should have heard the matter and examined the constitutional amendment that created the independent redistricting commission.

Previously, the state Legislature had been in charge of drawing the district lines. Voters approved a ballot proposal to shift to a citizens panel in 2018. As the commission executed its work to draw maps for the next decade, some critics claimed it wasn't doing enough to ensure the maps were fair toward both parties.

"The law is a blank slate," Welch wrote. "I would have heard this case and taken the time to make certain that the will of the voters who supported Proposal 2 was actually reflected in the redistricting plan."

The other Democratic-nominated justice, Richard Bernstein, signed onto Welch's statement.

Mark Brewer, a longtime election lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party chairman, represented the groups that filed the suit. He had argued the commission failed to achieve a requirement that it not "provide disproportionate partisan advantage to any political party."

The House map approved by the commission has a 5.3% bias toward Republican candidates but is still expected to produce 57 Democratic seats and 53 Republican seats, according to commission experts' analysis of prior voting patterns. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Michigan's population.

However, there is a multitude of competitive districts that could swing from one party to another given the candidates and the election year. Republicans believe they still have a good chance to keep their majority. In 23 of the 110 new House districts, the breakdown of Democratic and Republican voters is within 5 percentage points, according to the commission's data.

Under the maps approved a decade ago whose cycle ends before the 2022 election, Republicans won a 58-52 seat majority in 2020, despite Democrat Joe Biden winning Michigan's presidential election by 3 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.