CINCINNATI (CN) – Eight Republican congressmen from Michigan can intervene in a gerrymandering lawsuit filed by a women’s group and Democratic voters, a Sixth Circuit panel ruled Thursday.
A district court panel had previously denied the lawmakers’ motion, citing a “significant likelihood of undue delay and prejudice.”
The lawsuit, filed in December 2017 by the League of Women Voters and 11 Democratic voters against Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, claimed Republican lawmakers unconstitutionally altered the state’s election map after the 2010 census.
Although statewide claims made by the plaintiffs were dismissed earlier this year, district-specific claims proceeded, prompting the congressmen’s motion for intervention.
The district court panel rejected the motion because of the possibility of delay, the “complex issues” raised by the suit, and the need for an “expeditious resolution of the case.”
The case was argued in the Sixth Circuit on Aug. 1 and Thursday’s opinion, authored by U.S. Circuit Judge Eugene Siler, reversed the lower court’s decision.
Judge Siler cited the district court panel’s failure to properly explain its reasons for rejecting the intervention, writing, “It is a challenge for us to conduct meaningful review on the permissive intervention issue based upon the district court’s bare-bones order.”
“First,” Siler continued, “at the time the district court denied the congressmen’s motion, the legal issues in the case were not particularly novel or complex. … The congressmen proposed to add three issues: the justiciability of plaintiffs’ claims, the legitimate state interests justifying Michigan’s current districting maps, and the doctrine of laches. While these issues do not arise in every case, they are common in redistricting cases.”
Judge Siler also rejected the district court’s reasoning regarding an “expeditious resolution” to the suit.
“Because many of the congressmen’s defenses overlapped with Johnson’s, adding the congressmen would not have placed any unnecessary or unexpected burden upon the district court,” he wrote. “The court could have disposed of both motions to dismiss in the same opinion. The same logic applies to plaintiffs – because the issues were identical, plaintiffs’ responsive arguments to Johnson and the congressmen would likely have been identical as well.”
While Siler admitted that the proposed February 2019 trial will most like have to be pushed back, he blamed the lower court for any potential delay.
“But again,” he wrote, “this delay would not have occurred if the district court had allowed the congressmen to intervene when they asked. And, even if the trial must be delayed, we are confident that the parties and the court can resolve this case before the March 2020 deadline.”
The League of Women Voters claimed at oral arguments that the congressmen’s interests were represented by Secretary of State Johnson, but Judge Siler disagreed.
“The contours of Michigan’s district maps do not affect Johnson directly – she just ensures the maps are administered fairly and accurately,” he said. “In contrast, the contours of the maps affect the congressmen directly and substantially by determining which constituents the congressmen must court for votes and represent in the legislature.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Allen Griffin concurred with Siler’s opinion, while U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore authored her own, dissenting opinion.
“Eight more defendants would mean more discovery, more motions, and more time,” she wrote. “Indeed, the district court’s decision seems prescient now, as the congressmen have informed the court that they plan to relitigate issues already decided by the district court if they are permitted to intervene.”
Moore scolded the majority for its reversal, accusing her two colleagues of basing their decision on speculation that Johnson may be voted out of office during the litigation.
“The majority,” she wrote, “hamstrings the district court’s smooth administration of this case and then offers, in consolation, that it could have been worse.”
The case will now be remanded to the Eastern District Court of Michigan.