Federal court strikes down Michigan state legislative and congressional district maps as partisan gerrymanders

On April 25, 2019, a three-judge panel of the United District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled unanimously that 34 congressional and state legislative districts had been subject to unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, violating Democrats’ First Amendment associational rights. The court also found that 27 of the 34 challenged districts violated the Democrats’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by diluting the impact of their votes. The challenged districts are listed below:
Congressional districts 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12
State Senate districts 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 22, 27, 32, and 36
State House districts 24, 32, 51, 52, 55, 60, 62, 63, 75, 76, 83, 91, 92, 94, and 95
The court enjoined the use of any challenged districts in future elections. The court also ordered that special elections be conducted in 2020 for the challenged state Senate districts and any adjoining districts whose boundaries might be affected by remedial maps. The court directed the state legislature to adopt remedial maps for the challenged districts on or before August 1, 2019.
Judge Eric Clay, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton (D), wrote the following in the court’s opinion and order: “Today, this Court joins the growing chorus of federal courts that have, in recent years, held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. We find that the Enacted Plan violates Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it deliberately dilutes the power of their votes by placing them in districts that were intentionally drawn to ensure a particular partisan outcome in each district. The Enacted Plan also injures Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to association by discriminating against them and their political party and subjecting them to ‘disfavored treatment by reason of their views.’” Judges Denise Hood and Gordon Quist, appointed to the bench by Presidents Clinton and George H. W. Bush (R), respectively, joined Clay’s opinion.
Charlie Spies, an attorney representing Michigan Republicans, said the following to The Detroit News: “We will likely see a stay and urge caution in drawing conclusions from this opinion, which we believe is at odds with where the Supreme Court will end up.”
All 38 seats in the Michigan State Senate were up for election in 2018 and are not scheduled to be up for election again until 2022.
Michigan is one of 14 states with divided government – both chambers of the legislature have Republican majorities while the governorship is held by Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Case background
  • December 22, 2017, the League of Women Voters of Michigan, along with a group of state Democrats, filed suit in federal court alleging that Michigan’s congressional and state legislative district plans represented unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders (i.e., the plaintiffs argued that the state’s district maps gave an unfair advantage to Republicans over Democrats).
  • December 27, 2017, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued an order that a three-judge panel be convened to hear the case.
  • February 1, 2019, the court rejected a proposed settlement in which maps for some state House districts would be redrawn in advance of the 2020 election. State Republicans petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to delay lower court proceedings pending the high court’s rulings in Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause.
  • February 4, 2019, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied this request, clearing the way for a trial to commence on February 5, 2019.
The phrase partisan gerrymandering refers to the practice of drawing electoral district maps with the intention of favoring one political party over another. In contrast with racial gerrymandering, on which issue the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings in the past affirming that such practices violate federal law, the high court has not, to date, made a ruling establishing clear precedent on the question of partisan gerrymandering. Two partisan gerrymandering cases – Rucho v. Common Cause and Benisek v. Lamone – are pending before the high court this term. Rulings are expected by the end of June.
Additional reading: