A lawsuit alleging that Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature engaged in partisan gerrymandering is heading to trial Tuesday after a panel of federal judges rejected efforts by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and plaintiffs to settle the case.
This development sets up an impending face-off between Benson and Republicans in the legislature that neither side wanted. The case could end with new state legislative maps being drawn ahead of the 2020 election cycle.
A three-judge panel issued a flurry of rulings Friday opposing Benson’s proposal to enter into a consent decree with the plaintiffs in the suit, which was brought by the League of Women Voters and several local Democratic voters. Benson said that rather than waste additional state funds on the case and potentially overhaul the entire map, it would be less disruptive to reconfigure 11 state House seats that represented the most egregious GOP-friendly gerrymanders.
The panel rejected the proposal, ruling that the secretary of state lacks standing to offer a settlement. Only the Michigan legislature has jurisdiction over legislative districts under the state constitution, the judges said.
“The court has ruled, and I respect its decision,” Benson said in a Friday statement obtained by the Detroit Free Press. “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.”
That ruling was a win for Michigan Republican lawmakers, whose attorneys accused Benson of entering into a “secret” deal with Democratic plaintiffs.
But not all of Friday’s rulings were positive for the state GOP. Republicans had asked that the case be delayed until the U.S. Supreme Court hears two other federal gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina this spring. The panel of judges denied that request, saying the parties “failed to articulate sufficiently compelling justifications.”
GOP lawmakers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and impose a delay. The parties had an 11 a.m. Monday deadline to file submissions to the court on that front.
Benson is also trying to halt Republican efforts to have her removed as the defendant in the case.
In a Monday court filing, Benson’s office said that removing her on the eve of trial would throw the proceedings into disarray and “severely prejudice the Secretary’s ability to defend her interests as the chief elections officer.”
Former Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson had defended the fairness of the maps when the case was brought in 2017.
In emails that surfaced in discovery, GOP consultants openly bragged about the “solid 9-5 [congressional] delegation” the maps created and joked about relegating “Dem garbage” to four southeastern Michigan districts.
Whatever happens with the case, this is the last time the state legislature will have a say in how districts are drawn. Last November, Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment creating an independent citizens commission that will assume control of the map-drawing process from 2021 onward.