In a huge win for the opponents of partisan gerrymandering, a federal appeals court has quashed a well-funded legal challenge from the right to Michigan's new independent redistricting commission.
The requirements for sitting on the panel, designed to limit the number of even potentially partisan players, were upheld as constitutional Wednesday by a unanimous 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans maintain the criteria violate free speech and equal protection rights of would-be public servants.
Unless the Supreme Court decides to step in, which for the moment looks unlikely, the panel will be created in time to draw new congressional and legislative seats after the 2020 census. Michigan will be the second-biggest, after California, of the 13 states where at least some mapmaking will be done by such a nonpartisan commission.
Michigan has been at the heart of the partisan gerrymandering battle for the past decade, because it has been a case study of what critics describe as politicians picking their voters when it should be the other way around: A battleground state where the maps drawn by a Republican Legislature kept that party in control of the state capital and the congressional delegation even after a series of elections in which Democrats won almost as many overall votes or even more.
Two years ago, 61 percent of voters approved a ballot measure to establish a commission to take over the line-drawing: four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents.
But the state GOP and other party activists challenged the eligibility criteria included in the referendum, which bars membership by current and former partisan elected officials, party bosses, candidates and lobbyists — or any members of their families. That violates both the First and 14th amendment rights of thousands of would-be commissioners, the Republicans said in a lawsuit spurned by a federal trial judge last November.
"The eligibility criteria do not represent some out-of-place addition to an unrelated state program; they are part and parcel of the definition of this commission, of how it achieves independence from partisan meddling," Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote in an opinion, joined by Judge Ronald Lee Gilman. Both were nominated by President Bill Clinton.
Judge Chad Readler, a nominee of President Trump, concurred in the result and wrote: "It is refreshing to see the court embrace as a central principle a state's prerogative in organizing its government, including its election system."
Voters Not Politicians, the group created to push the ballot measure, said it will continue to encourage applications for seats on the commission. More than 4,300 have applied already. The deadline is June 1, after which the panelists are to be chosen at random by the secretary of state's office.
"Taking partisanship out of drawing electoral maps is critical to advancing the principle of accountability in government," said Paul Smith of the Campaign Legal Center, which represented that grassroots group in the lawsuit. "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."
Spokeswoman Tony Zammit said the Michigan GOP has not decided whether to appeal.
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