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Michigan high court urged to strike down new voting maps

Seeking a return to previous boundaries, a group of Detroit lawmakers say the new districts were drawn in a way that will diminish the impact of Black voters.

LANSING, Mich. (CN) — The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by a group of Detroit lawmakers who seek to block the implementation of newly drawn congressional and legislative districts they contend weaken the voting power of Black residents.

Filing attorney Nabih Ayad was the first to speak to the justices in a Zoom hearing. He began by saying the intent of the state's independent redistricting commission is irrelevant, but the results of its work will discriminate against minority voters.

“Why should the African-American be the sacrificial lamb?” he asked.

Justice Brian K. Zahra was curious what the endgame was if the plaintiffs prevailed.

“The commission says you simply haven’t provided any alternative plans,” he said. “Are you satisfied…what you presented to us is sufficient for us to make a ruling in your favor?”

Ayad said he was confident he submitted enough information considering his position.

“We don’t have the tax dollars the opposing party has and the hundreds of hours of experts who put hundreds of pages of expert testimony in a short period of time,” he said.

He added, “But I can tell you…from what we see…is that you have two U.S. congressional districts majority-minority African Americans that have been dwindled to zero. You have...five state senators that have been dwindled from five to zero in majority-minority districts. You have 12 House of Representatives that have been dwindled from a majority-minority district to six. I think that is clear evidence.”

Ayad said the state should revert to the boundaries that were previously used for more than 30 years.

Justice David F. Vivano was skeptical that more data was not required.

“The question is, that we’re trying to figure out, is whether you can establish your case without the aid of expert analysis…I don’t think we’ve seen any analysis…that would rebut the expert analysis we are getting from the commission,” he told Ayad.

Katherine McKnight of BakerHostetler, representing the redistricting commission, said that Ayad did not give the court enough information to support his claims and he wouldn’t be able to provide anything relevant if prompted.

“What you have is a commission that took it’s job seriously,” she said.

McKnight said the mapmakers for the commission are strictly scrutinized as they use the Voting Rights Act as a basis for their work. She called for the lawsuit to be dismissed since the commission adhered to those rules as well as the Constitution's equal protection clause when creating the maps.

Viviano asked McKnight about Ayad’s predictions that the districts will become racially imbalanced.

“That would be an example of a factual development,” she answered.  

The lawsuit was filed days after the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission finalized U.S. House of Representatives and Michigan Legislature maps to take effect in 2022. Those new boundaries are intended to last a decade, until the next census.  

“Unfortunately, the problem lies in the largest African American majority city in the nation has received the very short end of the stick,” Ayad told the Detroit News. “The new redistricting map lines have unfairly discriminated against the City of Detroit, its residents and its elected officials.”

The suit alleges violations of the Voting Rights Act and the Michigan Constitution, noting the state's high court already ruled against the commission over an Open Meetings Act violation claim. The plaintiff state lawmakers say the hope of fair districts has been “shattered” by the revelation of the new maps.

The complaint was filed on behalf of state Representatives Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods; Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; Helena Scott, D-Detroit; Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, and Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township. Democratic state Senator Betty Jean Alexander of Detroit is also listed as a plaintiff.  

The Detroit lawmakers are concerned that Black candidates from the city would not fare as well in the newly drawn districts and say the commission failed to closely examine state legislative primary elections to better understand racial voting patterns. 

Commissioners have countered that Black voters can still elect their candidates of choice without comprising at least half of a district's electorate.

The 13-member commission and its lawyers have also said federal law does not require majority-minority districts.

"As shared previously, we believe in the advice of our Voting Rights Act legal counsel that we comply with the Voting Rights Act," commission spokesperson Edwards Woods III told the Associated Press.

The voter-created commission was established to “lead Michigan's redistricting process to assure Michigan's congressional, state Senate, and state House district lines are drawn fairly in a citizen-led, transparent process, meeting Constitutional mandates,” according to the mission statement on its website.

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