michigan map
A three-judge federal court panel will decide whether legislative districts drawn by an independent commision violate the rights of Black Detroit voters. (Shutterstock)

KALAMAZOO  — A federal court on Wednesday began its scrutiny of nine Detroit-area state legislative districts that critics believe unfairly dilute the power of Black voters.

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

A three-judge panel in Michigan’s U.S. Western District court heard opening arguments and began taking testimony in a case that could reshape Detroit’s political landscape and is the biggest test so far of the state’s new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The maps drawn by the commission for use in elections until after the 2030 census are, by and large, more competitive than past maps drawn by the Legislature. They gave Democrats a chance in the House and Senate, where they won slim majorities in 2022.

But plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking a redraw of Detroit-area districts argue the final product came at the expense of Black Detroiters, whose districts now expand well outside the majority-Black city into neighboring majority-white communities. 

The three judges who began hearing the case this week — all appointees of former President George W. Bush, a Republican — will determine whether the commission “went too far” in lowering percentages of Black voters in the Detroit area. 

In opening arguments, attorneys for the plaintiffs laid most of the blame on the commission’s hired experts, Lisa Handley and Bruce Adelson, who advised the commission on partisan fairness issues and on compliance with the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices including legislative districts that limit the power of Black voters. 

John Bursch, an attorney for the Black voters challenging the maps, argued that the experts lacked sufficient data on how lowering the number of Black voters in Detroit districts would impact primary elections. That, he said, swayed the commission to draw districts using race as a primary factor that ultimately splintered the Black community and diluted their voting power.

“The cake was already baked based on the racial focus,” Bursch told the court, further arguing the commission “lacked the courage” to challenge their experts and “slavishly adhered to the targets” recommended to them regarding the percentage of Black voters necessary to ensure their preferred candidate would advance.

Before last year’s elections, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five in the state Senate. After the 2022 election that used the new maps, those numbers fell to 14 in the House and three in the Senate.

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 the smaller number of districts they had with the Republican-drawn maps that were in place from 2012 to 2020. 

Historically, partisan mapmakers have “packed” districts by including more than 50 percent minority voters. Doing so increased the likelihood that a minority-preferred candidate would be elected — but districts were sometimes so packed with people of color, that it diluted their voting power, limiting it to a lower number of districts overall.

The independent redistricting commission — made possible by a 2018 voter referendum that, for the first time, put an independent body of randomly selected Michiganders in charge of drawing districts —  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 was that previous elections showed significant crossover between Black and white voters in metro Detroit.

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 now spread across eight of the state’s 38 Senate districts and 15 of the state’s 110 House districts.

Katherine McKnight, an attorney for the commission, told the court Wednesday that commission members did the best they could with the resources available to them, and extended Detroit-based districts into the suburbs because the commission couldn’t meet its legal requirements otherwise. 

“It turns out redistricting is difficult no matter who does it,” she said. 

Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, one of the commission’s five politically independent members, has been critical of some aspects of the process. Testifying Wednesday, she claimed the redistricting process “became all about race” due to the expert recommendations provided and ultimately resulted in commissioners aiming for a certain percentage of Black voters in metro Detroit districts out of fear that majority-Black districts would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

Szetela, a former chair of the commission, told the court that she felt the end result of Detroit-based districts extending well into the suburbs didn’t align with the needs of voters, adding that some districts extended so far out of the city they looked like “spaghetti noodles.”

Districts on the list for scrutiny are House Districts 1, 7, 10, 12 and 14 and Senate Districts 1, 3, 6 and 8. 

The three-judge panel — Judges Raymond Kethledge, Paul Maloney and Janet Neff — 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. 

The trial could last up to a week, and the panel is expected to hear from several other commissioners, their hired experts and other witnesses in the coming days.

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