Nine state legislative districts that extend from Detroit into the suburbs will be put to the test next month when federal judges weigh whether the lines discriminate against Black voters.
The Nov. 1 trial, before a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court three-judge panel, will determine whether the current maps violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act by diluting Black votes. The trial is the latest and biggest test of the work of an independent redistricting panel, which was created by voters to avoid legislative gerrymandering and completed the districts in 2021.
The maps, which last 10 years, are by and large more competitive than their predecessors, and were credited with allowing Democrats to make big gains for the first time in years and win a slim majority in the state House and Senate.
Critics have long argued the final product came at the expense of Black Detroiters, whose districts now expand well outside the predominantly African-American city into neighboring majority-white communities.
Before last year’s elections, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five in the state Senate. That fell to 14 in the state House and three in the Senate following the 2022 election.
The commission has defended the legality of its districts, arguing that Black Detroiters can still elect their candidates and actually have more voting power than before, as their communities are no longer packed into a smaller number of districts.
A separate state lawsuit making similar claims against the redistricting commission was dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court, but in a court order calling the trial, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote that further evidence is needed to determine whether the commission “went too far” in lowering percentages of Black voters in the Detroit area.
The Voting Rights Act is designed to allow racial minorities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, and lawsuits about districts are not uncommon on the federal level.
This summer, federal courts twice rejected Alabama lawmakers’ congressional maps after the Republican-led legislature drew just one Black-majority district.
But redistricting experts say Detroit’s political dynamics could make the question murkier than in Southern states, as Voting Rights Act compliance has rarely been tested on a Midwest city.
“The politics of Michigan are more complicated…you have to go almost district by district and region by region within the city, within the metro area, to figure out what level of Black population you need for the district to perform on a reliable basis,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.
A pretrial conference is set for Thursday in Kalamazoo, and the trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 1. Trial proceedings could last up to a week as both sides present their case to the three-judge panel.
Here’s what you need to know.
The case is called Agee v. Benson.
Filed by a group of 20 Black metro Detroit voters against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, and members of the Michigan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission, the suite argues that the redistricting panel’s strategy of “unpacking” Black-majority districts violates both the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Historically, mapmakers have “packed” districts by comprising them of more than 50 percent minorities. Doing so increased the likelihood that a minority candidate would be elected — but sometimes districts were so packed with people of color, that it diluted their voting power.
The commission operated under the theory that candidates of color could still be elected by
“unpacking” districts — reducing minority representation to less than 50 percent while still making them a significant voting bloc. The thinking is that previous elections showed significant crossover between Black and white voters in metro Detroit.
The lawsuit claimed the strategy “is flawed, speculative…and will deny Black voters the opportunity to elect their candidate of their choice.”
Several plaintiffs and their supporters, including former state lawmakers, held a Wednesday press conference in Detroit ahead of court proceedings, reiterating arguments that the redistricting commission’s process amounted to discrimination against Black voters.
Detroit resident Natalie Bien-Aime, a plaintiff in the federal suit who attended more than 20 redistricting commission meetings, said the goal is to get the district maps redrawn “and stop the unfair advantage by diluting Black votes.”
Jennifer Green, one of the attorneys representing the Detroit-area voters, said Thursday the group has submitted a set of proposed maps for the court to consider, but noted the broad relief sought is for the court to order the commission to “go back to the drawing board” and revise the districts to comply with federal law.
Plaintiffs initially challenged 15 state House and Senate districts. The three-judge panel — Kethledge and Judges Paul Maloney and Janet Neff, all appointees of former Republican President George W. Bush — will hear their arguments for nine districts total at trial, but rejected similar claims made in four other House districts and three other Senate districts.
Districts on the list for scrutiny are House Districts 1, 7, 10, 12 and 14 and Senate Districts 1, 3, 6 and 8.
Redistricting Commissioner Steven T. Lett, a politically independent member of the panel and its legal liaison, said commissioners “are fully confident in our legal team to defend our fair maps at trial.”
During the commission’s last meeting, the panel voted 8-3 to increase its cap on litigation expenses from $3 million to $4.5 million in advance of the trial.
What’s at stake
Michigan’s legislative districts were notoriously gerrymandered before voters created the independent commission through a 2018 constitutional amendment.
For decades, the districts were drawn every 10 years by the party in power in Lansing. The lines skewed Republican, allowing them to keep control of the Legislature for years even though their candidates sometimes received fewer overall votes in state elections than Democrats.
Republicans who devised the maps have said urban Democrats helped draw safe seats for Black lawmakers at the expense of more competitive districts elsewhere in the state.
Former Detroit state Sen. Virgil K. Smith, who helped draw the maps during the 2011 redistricting process as a lawmaker, said during the Wednesday media conference that a Democratic majority in the Legislature wasn’t worth going from 10 majority-minority districts to five in the House and five majority-minority districts to zero in the Senate.
“What have we gotten accomplished with this new majority?” he asked rhetorically. “I was more successful with a Republican majority.”
During the latest redistricting process, members of the 13-member independent redistricting commission struggled with how best to map out the city, landing on a plan that included two Detroit-centric congressional seats, the 12th and 13th.
In the state legislative maps, the commission split the city among several districts that extend deep into the suburbs in Oakland and Wayne counties. Detroit voters are spread across eight state Senate districts of 38 total and 15 state House districts of 110.
Rep. Donavan McKinney, a Black Detroit Democrat whose district is one of the nine facing court scrutiny, recently told reporters he would support a redraw of metro Detroit districts, in part because people in Detroit “feel left out” of districts where the majority of votes are concentrated outside the city.
“Voters in Detroit have been disenfranchised, sad to say,” McKinney said. “We need folks that are from those communities.”
From a mapping perspective, changing even one district would require changes to neighboring districts, which could then have broader implications for the legislative maps, said Matt Grossmann, political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“You open up the can of worms, then you open up the potential for wider change,” he said.
Grossmann said the trial will ultimately test the commission’s “unusual strategy” of pairing Black communities with like-minded white voters, which they argued would increase the clout of people of color and allow them to elect candidates of their choice without concentrating them into fewer districts.
“There was a relatively good faith, strange attempt to increase Black representation by maximizing the districts that were about 40 to 45 percent Black,” Grossmann said. “We’re now going to see whether it was permissible.”
Commission-drawn maps in other states typically have withstood court scrutiny, said Li, of the Brennan Center for Justice.
He noted that even if commissioners are asked to revisit their maps by either the Sixth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court, it doesn’t mean the panel would have to start from scratch on the whole state.
Commissioners would “have a chance to figure out how they think they can solve the problem with guidance from the court,” he said, adding, “it’s not a binary where it’s all or nothing.”