Federal appeals panel upholds Michigan redistricting commission

The court rejected an appeal by state Republicans that the commission violated their constitutional rights

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee speaks outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2017, calling for an end to partisan gerrymandering. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court upheld the creation of the state’s independent redistricting commission. (Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee speaks outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2017, calling for an end to partisan gerrymandering. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court upheld the creation of the state’s independent redistricting commission. (Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
Posted April 15, 2020 at 7:07pm

A federal appeals court upheld the creation of Michigan’s independent redistricting commission in a decision issued Wednesday that rejected an appeal by state Republicans that the commission violated their constitutional rights.

More than a dozen states have some form of a redistricting commission, which will draw new district lines based on results of the 2020 census.

Michigan voters in 2018 approved an amendment to its state constitution that handed over district line-drawing power from state lawmakers to a 13-member commission. But litigants, which included the state GOP party, argued that selection criteria for commission members and limitations on what those members could say publicly violated the Constitution.

The 6th U.S. Circuit of Appeals disagreed. In its opinion Wednesday, the panel said the state’s limits on who could serve and what those members could say about their work didn’t run afoul of the First Amendment.

“But whether a state’s task be district-line drawing or setting the rules for its elections, I (like the majority opinion) am reluctant to interfere with a state’s effort to structure its system of government, to which we owe significant deference, absent the infringement of a dramatic federal interest or a significant violation of constitutional rights,” wrote Judge Chad Readler, who was appointed by President Donald Trump.

[Census delays pose risks for legislative map drawing]

The 13-member Michigan commission includes four members of both major political parties and five unaffiliated members. Elected officials, lobbyists and relatives cannot serve as members of the commission.

Maps drawn by the commission must gain support of at least two members of both party affiliation and cannot offer undue partisan advantage, under the language adopted in 2018.

Representatives for the Michigan Republican party and the Michigan Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Wednesday's ruling.

The Campaign Legal Center and Voters Not Politicians, two Michigan groups that backed the constitutional amendment, praised the decision. 

“Taking partisanship out of drawing electoral maps is critical to advancing the principle of accountability in government,” Paul Smith, vice president of Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “Michigan voters want fair maps. They will not be silenced by special interests, who continue to try and exert their will over the redistricting process.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose National Democratic Redistricting Commission has backed some state efforts, also praised the decision.

“The citizens of Michigan voted overwhelmingly to create an independent commission to draw the lines in the upcoming redistricting process. Republicans sued so that politicians could keep drawing the lines and pick their voters. They lost. This is a victory for fairness/democracy,” Holder wrote in a tweet.

While the Census Bureau’s planned late delivery of census results may spell trouble for other states, the Michigan constitution allows until next November to finalize new state legislative and congressional maps.