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Michigan Supreme Court tosses challenge to new voting districts

The majority of the court found there simply wasn’t enough evidence to support the complaint, but dissenting justices thought the appointment of an independent examiner would have been appropriate.

LANSING, Mich. (CN) — The Michigan Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of Detroit lawmakers who sought to block the implementation of newly drawn congressional and legislative districts they said weakened the voting power of Black residents.

In an order handed down late Thursday, the court’s majority found the state lawmakers did not identify the legal authority that would allow the court to intervene and did not present enough evidence to support their claims.

“We recognize that some challenges to redistricting might require additional factual development, and that this is particularly true when redistricting happens behind closed doors because the evidence on which decisions are made is generally not publicly available,” the order states. “However, the Commission’s work has been an open and public process as required…plaintiffs have not demonstrated the…plans are noncompliant.”

The majority was comprised of Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justices Megan Cavanagh, Elizabeth Clement and Elizabeth Welch.

Justices Richard Bernstein, David Viviano and Brian Zahra dissented and said the dismissal was premature.

“Instead of dismissing the case without any analysis…we would appoint an independent expert to assist the court in assessing the evidence and factual assertions presented thus far and any additional evidence the parties would develop and submit for review,” they wrote.

The dissenting justices were also concerned with how the dismissal would appear to the general public.

“People care about how their cases are handled and whether they had a fair opportunity to be heard. The majority’s decision today will do much to undermine the public’s confidence that this court will take seriously complaints filed in our court,” they said.

The court heard arguments in late January over the lawsuit filed by attorney Nabih Ayad.

Ayad was the first to speak to the justices in a Zoom hearing last week. He said the intent of the state's independent redistricting commission was irrelevant, but the results of its work will discriminate against minority voters.

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

Zahra was curious what the endgame was if the plaintiffs prevailed.

“The commission says you simply haven’t provided any alternative plans,” the judge 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.

“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," the attorney said.

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

Vivano thought more information was needed.

“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,” the judge told Ayad.

Katherine McKnightof 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 its 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 said the commission adhered to those rules as well as the Constitution's equal protection clause when creating the maps.

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 plaintiff state lawmakers said 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.  

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.

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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