LANSING — Lawyers for the state’s redistricting panel want commissioners to keep two voting-rights memos private, despite calls from the public, news outlets, transparency advocates and the attorney general to release them.
The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is scheduled to meet Thursday to decide whether to release the memos, which were authored by attorneys and discussed during a private meeting last month.
The memos helped inform the commission’s decision to reduce the number of state House, Senate and congressional districts in which minorities are the majority.
In a letter emailed to commissioners Tuesday, the commission’s four attorneys said they “strongly” encourage the 13-member panel to “protect its ability to have and retain” the attorney-client privilege by “maintaining the confidentiality of all privileged communications to date and protecting future confidential communications.”
The communication was signed by General Counsel Julianne Pastula, voting-rights attorney Bruce Adelson, and local counsel David Fink, and litigation counsel Katherine McKnight.
In the letter, the attorneys said the commission is receiving “strong” pressure to make the documents public, but that “it would be unwise and detrimental to the MICRC and Commissioners to acquiesce at this juncture, with the adoption of final maps and threat of litigation so close.”
Bridge Michigan, and other news organizations, have repeatedly asked for the two memos, but Pastula and communications director Edward Woods III have declined to release them.
Last week, a coalition of news organizations, including Bridge Michigan, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and the Michigan Press Association, met virtually with the commission’s lawyers to ask them to make the documents public.
Lisa McGraw, the manager of the Michigan Press Association, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday she was “befuddled by this absolute insistence of secrecy.”
McGraw pointed to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s recent non-binding opinion in which she said the commission was wrong to meet in secret, and that it must release the memos.
“Presuming the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission … discuss(ed) memoranda that provided Commission members with certain legal parameters and historical context that should be considered in developing, drafting, and adopting the redistricting plans, then the memoranda must be disclosed under (the constitution) and the discussion should have been held at an open meeting,” Nessel’s said in the 14-page opinion.
But the commission’s attorneys said the opinion “underscores the need for clarity from a court.”
“The pressure will only intensify for the release of additional privileged information, and the stakes will only increase,” the lawyers wrote.
Voters changed the state constitution in 2018 to create the panel, replacing a system that allowed parties controlling the Legislature to draft legislative districts largely in secret. The districts are redrawn every 10 years, and the process resulted in some of the worst Republican gerrymandering in the nation.
Bridge Michigan CEO John Bebow said Tuesday the nonprofit news organization “will continue to vigorously pursue every avenue to make these documents public.”
“The voters did not vote for a team of lawyers to decide what is public and what is not,” Bebow said. “We will not stop this quest for transparency. We won’t stop. It’s that simple.”
A few weeks ago, some commissioners said they may want to release the documents. Now, some aren’t so sure.
Earlier this month, for instance, Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat from Ypsilanti said he couldn’t “see any legal strategy” in the memos that would allow them to remain private.
On Tuesday night, he told Bridge he wanted to consider the advice from the commission lawyers.
“I do want to have a discussion on it with my fellow commissioners before I make a decision,” Witjes said.