State gerrymandering lawsuit trial begins

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 9:43pm

The state gerrymandering trial seeking to redraw Michigan's political map began on Feb. 5.

The state gerrymandering trial seeking to redraw Michigan's political map began on Feb. 5. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

A gerrymandering lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters went to trial U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Tuesday after a settlement offered by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was rejected. Benson's settlement offer was a proposal to declare 11 of Michigan's 110 state House districts unconstitutional and called for them to be redrawn by an unbiased redistricting committee within legislature. One of those districts, the 55th, includes part of Ann Arbor and is currently represented by Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.

The LWV, a non-partisan organization, as well as 11 Democratic voters filed a lawsuit back in December 2017 against the current districting lines of Michigan, which were previously drawn under Governor Rick Snyder in 2011. They claimed the lines are restricting Democratic voters to select districts while spreading out Republican voters throughout the state, giving them more influence over how districts vote. They asked the courts to remove the current maps and draw new lines to appropriately reflect the distribution of voters.

Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson filed a motion to delay the proceedings until other gerrymandering cases in Wisconsin and in Maryland had been decided. Her motion was denied in March 2018 and the case proceeded.

Benson tried to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs before the trial start date on Tuesday. In her proposed settlement, she notes the current districts in question could be gerrymandered and that they will be redrawn by an independent redistricting committee.

“I believe today’s settlement proposal strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 redistricting maps while also reaching a remedy that is limited in scope and impact, given the length of time that these districts have been in place,” Benson told the Associated Press.

During her campaign, Benson supported Proposal 2, an anti-gerrymandering amendment. She has previously said she is a “long-time advocate” for the initiative.

If the settlement is accepted, it has the potential to benefit Democratic voters in 2020. College Democrats Communications Director Katie Kelly, Public Policy senior, said she believes redistricting will better reflect the views of the voters.

“It will be interesting to see how the redrawn lines will impact the election,” Kelly said. “Jocelyn Benson has been very clear in saying that new lines are going to be drawn in a more fair manner for the voters, so I look forward to seeing how she will draw the lines because I’m not completely sure how she will draw the lines but I believe that if they are drawn in a more fair manner it will help reflect the views of the voters.”

Kelly said having an independent committee redraw the lines would help ensure a fair result.

“This is a step in the right direction, but I think this will be the best step, once the lines are redrawn by the independent redistricting committee that was passed by Proposal 2 in 2018,” Kelly said.

The Voters Not Politicians organization helped gather signatures to introduce the redistricting amendment in court. Sybil Often, a member of Voters Not Politicians, was one of the petition gatherers and she said she would like to see a federal law eliminate gerrymandering for good.

“Nothing would please me more than a federal law that just eliminated gerrymandering completely,” Often said. “But I think our petition drive moved Michigan more towards equality for all and I think this lawsuit is the step in the right direction.”

Often expressed her disappointment for the proposal being denied by the courts but said she remains optimistic for the future.

“That’s a little different. I was hoping that we could negotiate a settlement,” Often said. “It could lead to bigger and better things eventually. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.”

On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied Republicans’ request to delay the trial once again. Trial began the following day. The plaintiffs’ attorney Jay Yeager of Faegre Baker Daniels will call nine witnesses, including six people who were directly impacted by gerrymandering. Attorney Jason Torchinsky, representing the Republican controlled Senate, argued in his opening statement “both parties win districts they previously complained were biased.”

Benson’s support of Proposition 2 has led some Republicans to claim she is biased against the state’s current district lines. According to The Detroit News, Republicans told the court they would look for any emails and other forms of communications between Benson and the plaintiffs all the way back until 2017. They claim they were not invited to participate in any discussions regarding the settlement.

However, Benson’s spokesperson Shawn Starkey told several news outlets including Detroit News that Benson has gone about the settlement in a completely neutral way. Benson’s lawyers have said she will not be defending the district maps but she can still participate in the trial if she so chooses.

Kinesiology Junior Jackson Schleuning, College Republican Secretary and Social Media Chair, said he believes the districts are gerrymandered because of their shape.

“First of all the Michigan congressional districts, you can look at them and I feel like it’s pretty obvious that they’re gerrymandered, just by the physical shape of them, things that just don’t make sense,” Schleuning said.

However, he said he believes the redrawing of the congressional map should not just fall on a group of individuals selected by the Secretary of State, but should be a collaborative effort of elected officials.

“I personally believe the Congressional map should be decided by the governor, both parts of the legislature, and probably along with the Secretary of State too,” he said. “I disagree very much with the ballot proposal that they put on that the Secretary of State can just randomly choose 13 or whatever number of people it was. We elect a representative for a reason and I don’t think 13 randomly selected and supposedly non-bias would be the best way to do it.”