New secretary of state seeks to settle gerrymandering suit
By DAVID EGGERT
LANSING, Mich. — New Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson moved Thursday to settle a lawsuit that challenges the state’s Republican-drawn legislative and congressional districts, a step that potentially could lead to new maps for the 2020 election.
The Democrat, who took office two weeks ago, filed a brief seeking to halt a federal trial scheduled for Feb. 5. The filing says a resolution is in the best interest of the state and its voters, “as it will correct any lasting impact of impermissible partisan gerrymandering that may have occurred in the past.”
Democrats and the League of Women Voters sued just over a year ago , alleging that Michigan’s U.S. House and state legislative districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of Democrats.
The districts were enacted in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature and former Gov. Rick Snyder.
While voters approved a constitutional amendment in November creating an independent commission to handle redistricting after the 2020 Census, the case could impact the 2020 election.
Asked if Benson favors new 2020 maps, spokesman Shawn Starkey said “discussions haven’t fully begun related to the terms and the structure of a consent agreement.”
Benson, like Republican state lawmakers and congressional members who intervened in the suit, wants the trial delayed but for different reasons.
The GOP legislators filed a brief last week urging that the trial should wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on separate cases appealing rulings of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland.
Benson said the trial should be avoided in part to conserve public funds and resources.
“It is clear the court has found significant evidence of partisan gerrymandering, and the likely outcome would not be favorable to the state,” she said in a statement. “It is therefore my responsibility to ensure a fair and equitable resolution for the citizens of Michigan that would save taxpayer money and ensure fair representation.”
GOP lawmakers involved in the case declined to comment or could not be reached Thursday night.
But Laura Cox, the likely next chairwoman of the state Republican Party, issued a statement accusing Benson of trying to “rig the system in favor of Democrats” and “pay back” a campaign donor who is a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, had sought to have the case dismissed and most recently argued that the 2018 election results — in which Democrats netted two congressional seats for a 7-7 split and narrowed the GOP’s margin in the state House — show there is no evidence that the maps are unfair.
Democrats who sued the state also filed a brief Thursday seeking a trial delay, citing a “high likelihood” of a settlement with Benson. If a deal is done in time, the plaintiffs could ask a three-judge panel to set a hearing on the proposed consent decree for Feb. 5.