Gerrymandering case will go to trial, unless Supreme Court intervenes

Jocelyn Benson, February 5, 2016 in San Francisco | Kimberly White, Getty Images

After a flurry of activity in the last two weeks, a federal lawsuit alleging Republican gerrymandering in Michigan seems likely to go to trial next week.

A three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Friday night denied a motion by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to settle the lawsuit. A proposed consent decree would have redrawn at least 11 state House districts in Michigan.

U.S. Supreme Court | Susan J. Demas

Short of the U.S. Supreme Court choosing to intervene — which could still happen, according to the Detroit News — the case of League of Women Voters et. al. v. Jocelyn Benson will start trial on Tuesday in Detroit.

“The court has ruled, and I respect its decision,” Benson said in an emailed statement. “As the state’s chief election officer, I will continue efforts to resolve this lawsuit in the best interests of all voters and in compliance with constitutional requirements.”

The judges said that Benson lacks the authority to enter into the settlement without the support of the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature. Several Republican legislators have intervened in the case, including state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering). The GOP will remain as intervenor-defendants in the trial.

The judges wrote that Benson’s proposed settlement “would invalidate maps approved and enacted by the Michigan Legislature. And the Michigan Constitution gives the Michigan Legislature, not any political subdivision, authority to ‘enact laws to regulate the time, place and manner of all . . . elections.’”

The judges in the case are: U.S. Circuit Court Judge Eric Clay, appointed by President Bill Clinton; U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, also appointed by Clinton; and U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist, appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

The initial lawsuit was filed in 2017 by Democrats and the League of Women Voters of Michigan. The complaint alleged that several of Michigan’s legislative and congressional districts were drawn to benefit Republicans.

On Jan. 25, Benson moved to settle the case, shortly after becoming the defendant in the case after taking office. The move immediately attracted the ire of Michigan’s GOP, several of whom began calling her “Backroom Benson.”

The previous Secretary of State, now-Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), had been actively fighting the lawsuit. Benson became the defendant in Johnson’s stead upon taking office on Jan. 1.

Benson has previously said that she believes there’s ample evidence of gerrymandering, making a court trial an inefficient use of taxpayer resources.

However, a new nonpartisan redistricting panel will take over from the Legislature drawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps for the 2022 elections, as a result of the voter-approved Proposal 2 ballot measure last year.

Attorneys who are not involved in the case, but have tracked it closely, have previously told the Advance that they could see this case stuck in the court process until that panel convenes.

Peter Ruddell, a Lansing attorney for Honigman LLP’s government relations and regulatory practice group, told the Advance last month that it “seems like [the case] will languish in the courts” for quite some time.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.


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