Miles: Why we sued the Michigan redistricting commission
Back in 2011, an aide who voiced displeasure about possible changes to Rep. Dave Camp's congressional district around Midland received a conciliatory email in response.
"We will accommodate whatever Dave wants in his district," came the reply.
Surprisingly, it came from Michigan Chamber of Commerce official Bob LaBrant, not the legislators who were supposed to be redrawing the districts.
When that email and others became public seven years later, they served as confirmation of what many long suspected — that Michigan politicians had turned over the once-a-decade job of redistricting to special interest groups.
Redistricting is an important job. It decides which groups of people share elected representatives. It plays a huge role in determining which party controls government.
Some argue that turning it over to partisan special interests has created this great and growing partisan divide by prompting campaigning politicians to cater to extremists in their parties to get elected, rather than looking out for the good of an entire district.
Four months after LaBrant's email became public in 2018, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the state's constitution. They took the job of redistricting away from politicians and put it in the hands of an independent commission designed to be fair, public-minded and transparent.
"The commission shall conduct all of its business at open meetings," the constitution now reads. And "the commission shall publish the proposed redistricting plans and any data and supporting materials used to develop the plans."
It's an impressively high standard of openness designed to restore trust.
Unfortunately, it's not being met.
As the first independent citizens group has worked toward a finish, it discussed memoranda from its legal team entitled "Voting Rights Act" and "History of discrimination in Michigan and its impact on voting" behind closed doors on Oct. 27. Both documents ostensibly deal with the very contentious issue of racial politics.
On Dec. 2, the commission voted narrowly against releasing those documents or details of the meeting.
That's why The Detroit News and other media organizations sued the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in the Michigan Supreme Court this week.
The commission's attorneys have determined that "all" of its business does not mean all. And "shall" publish does not mean shall. They told this well-intentioned group of citizens that they would no longer give candid legal advice if they had to do it in public. They said that if that's what the constitution required, it would be "akin to having no counsel at all."
Katherine McKnight, Washington-based partner of BakerHostetler, made an analogy to sharing the playbook in football. Local litigation counsel David Fink took it a step further.
"It's like inviting the other team into your huddle," he said. "They know exactly what your play is and they know exactly why."
For the record, The News, Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine went to great lengths to avoid this suit. We requested the documents on Oct. 27. I wrote to the commission on Nov. 5. We filed an information request on Nov. 15. We met with commission attorneys Nov. 24. We followed with a letter Nov. 30. We appeared in person on Dec. 2.
In the meantime, the state's top law enforcement official, the Attorney General Dana Nessel, opined that it appears to her that both the meeting and its documents should be public under the constitution.
It's quite possible that these documents are not particularly interesting or revelatory.
But we're not suing because we think they'll make fascinating news.
We're suing because the process that this group follows will guide redistricting commissions for decades to come. To allow an unconstitutional slide towards secrecy is to sow more seeds of distrust.
We report on the ramifications of public skepticism every day. On election day. On Jan. 6. In our pandemic response.
Michigan's constitutional amendment was an impressive effort to combat that distrust and it made clear that voters are no longer content with merely knowing the final score or even who is calling the plays.
They want to be in the huddle. They want to know what the play is.
And, most importantly, they want to know why.
Gary Miles is editor and publisher of The Detroit News. You can reach him at (313) 222-2594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter.com: @GaryMiles_DN.