GOP Gerrymandering Trial Kicks Off in Michigan

DETROIT (CN) – A federal trial to determine if Michigan’s voting districts were gerrymandered began Tuesday in downtown Detroit with opening arguments painting a picture of a Republican Party determined to hold onto power using strategic redistricting.  

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by a group of Democrat voters and the League of Women Voters against then-Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, claiming GOP lawmakers unconstitutionally altered the state’s election map after the 2010 census.

On Tuesday, the voters’ attorney Jay Yeager of Faegre Baker Daniels told a three-judge panel in the Eastern District of Michigan that historical context “shows the severity of this gerrymandering.”

Yeager plans to call nine witnesses, including six registered voters who will share their stories of how they were harmed. George Washington University political science professor Christopher Warshaw is also expected to testify and demonstrate why the data will support accusations of Republicans “packing and cracking” districts filled with Democratic-leaning voters.  

Attorneys for Republican congressional members sought to postpone the proceeding as the U.S. Supreme Court considered separate gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina but the request was denied late Monday by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

Jason Torchinsky, the Holtzman Vogel lawyer representing state House and congressional Republicans, spoke so fast the court reporter had to ask him to slow down twice. Torchinsky picked apart the Democratic argument that Republicans drafted maps that only benefited their party. 

“Gerrymandering is not guaranteed victory for any party,” he said in his opening statement. 

Torchinsky said both parties win districts they previously complained were biased and that Democratic voters tended to live in concentrated areas, therefore weakening their effect on elections. 

There is no legal solution, Torchinsky argued, and no plaintiff would be able to prove they were harmed by the district boundaries as they stand today. He also noted Democrats waited three election cycles to complain about the boundaries and any map drafted for the 2020 election would be based on census data from 2010. 

Lawyers for three Republican state senators and the GOP-controlled Senate as a whole, who were allowed to intervene in the case, echoed Torchinsky’s statements during their opening arguments. 

Attorneys for new Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who inherited the lawsuit from her Republican predecessor, said Benson will not defend the district maps but reserves the right to participate in the trial. Benson also opposes a special election if judges decide the districts were gerrymandered.

Susan Kay Smith of Ypsilanti was the first witness called. Smith ran for several government seats, including serving on a school board and city commission while she taught at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, and also served as president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan.

Smith testified her voting districts were “packed” with fellow Democratic voters.

“No matter how I vote, a Democrat will win…I might have more influence in another district as to the outcome of a particular election. It doesn’t really matter how I vote,” she said. 

Exhibits filed over the weekend by the plaintiffs contain emails with GOP mapmakers discussing the boundaries of the districts and how they could be constructed to benefit Republican lawmakers.

“Don’t get hung up on how I’ve split Saginaw County or Sterling Heights,” mapmaker Jeff Timmer wrote in one exchange. “The lines can be moved to accommodate within those areas.”

Secretary Benson crafted a settlement agreement that was quickly rejected by Republicans and eventually thrown out by the three-judge panel overseeing the case. Benson argued the office of the state attorney general has “broad authority to sue and settle…including the power to settle…litigation with binding effect on Michigan’s political subdivisions.” 

But the panel disagreed and said the Michigan Constitution gave only the Legislature the power to enact laws regarding elections.

“Accordingly Benson lacks the authority–absent the express consent of the Michigan Legislature, which she lacks—to enter into the proposed consent decree,” the judges ruled.

The three-judge panel is made up of U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay of the Sixth Circuit and U.S. District Judges Denise Page Hood and Gordon Quist.

The trial is expected to last about a week. 

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