Michigan GOP looks to hit pause on Benson gerrymandering settlement

By: - January 22, 2019 9:34 pm

Jocelyn Benson at the SiriusXM Business Radio Broadcasts “Beyond The Game: Tackling Race,” Feb. 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California | Kimberly White, Getty Images

Attorneys representing Michigan GOP lawmakers are seeking to delay a pending settlement agreement in a lawsuit alleging Republican gerrymandering in several of the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

In a role reversal from last year’s Lame Duck legislative session, now it’s Republicans accusing Democrats of a “power grab.”

On Tuesday morning, lawyers for Republicans in League of Women Voters v. Benson argued in a filing that the move last week by new Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to settle the suit should be halted due to her “potential bias.”

Michigan congressional districts | Wikimedia Commons

Attorneys for the lawmakers, or “intervenors,” are asking to go through a “limited discovery period.” They want Benson’s office to produce communications between herself and plaintiffs, as well as attorney Mark Brewer — a former Michigan Democratic Party chair who filed the lawsuit — dating back to October 2017 in order to assess “Secretary Benson’s views regarding this lawsuit …”

Benson declared her SOS candidacy in October 2017.

She has said that settling the case, in which she became the defendant after taking office on Jan. 1, would avoid a trial that had been scheduled to begin next month and save taxpayer resources.

The settlement also would likely mean that several of the state’s congressional and legislative districts would be redrawn ahead of the 2020 election — which would include state Senate seats normally not on the ballot. This could lead to a potential heated political battle, as the Advance reported last week.

Court documents indicate that Benson and the plaintiffs were negotiating a “compromise in which fewer than the 34 challenged [state legislative and congressional] districts would be redistricted.” However, it’s not clear how many districts bordering the targeted districts could also be impacted.

GOP former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson had been fighting the case before she was termed out of office.

Attorneys for the Michigan Republican officials objected to Benson’s quick move to settle, alleging that they were not privy to discussions of the potential settlement and were never invited to participate in those talks.

“The fact that Secretary Benson has potentially reached a settlement with Plaintiffs only days after being recognized as a Defendant by the Court and without any involvement or input from Intervenors creates serious doubt regarding her continued standing as a defendant in the case,” attorneys Charlie Spies, Jason Torchinsky and others wrote.

The lawyers go on to say that Benson’s public statements in support of reforms for how legislative districts get drawn “suggest she is aligned with Plaintiffs and the relief they are seeking in this lawsuit.”

Benson’s office called the notion by GOP attorneys that she she would be impartial in her role as a defendant “laughable,” noting her stated desire for a nonpartisan redistricting process and her position as the state’s top elections officer.

“As the Secretary has stated, after spending several weeks reviewing every detail of the evidence before the court, she could not in good conscience waste taxpayer money defending a case that would likely be unsuccessful,” Benson spokesman Shawn Starkey wrote in an email to the Advance. “As such, she believes a consent agreement, if one can be reached, would ensure a fair and equitable resolution for the citizens of Michigan.”

Redistricting for the 2020 election would also come before major changes to the process are enacted under Proposal 2, which voters passed last year. Following the decennial census, a new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) will meet to draw new legislative districts through 2032.

Jocelyn Benson

“As a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in redistricting as a solution to end gerrymandering, I look forward to implementing an ICRC in a way that is transparent, nonpartisan and effectively engages citizens across the state in the important task of drawing legislative districts that comply with state and federal law,” Benson said in a statement last week.

During last year’s Lame Duck session, prior to Benson and other Democrats taking control of the state’s executive branch, several bills were introduced that would have stripped them of considerable power. Included in that push was legislation — which failed to make it to the desk of then-Gov. Rick Snyder —  that would have moved oversight of campaign finance away from Benson’s office and to a new committee.

The Michigan Republican Party, in a tweet on Tuesday afternoon, called the settlement move by Benson and Michigan Democrats like Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chair of the state party, “the greatest partisan power grab in Michigan history.”

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), one of several state and federal Republican lawmakers who are intervening in the settlement, was more diplomatic in speaking about the lawsuit.

Lee Chatfield

During an interview with the Advance on Tuesday morning, Chatfield largely declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said he’s committed to working with his legal counsel and Benson’s office to find a solution.

First elected in 2014, Chatfield wasn’t in office when the last redistricting occurred in 2011 under the GOP-led Legislature and Snyder.

“I know the [district] lines have worked for the past eight years and I’m going to continue consulting with my legal attorneys and the secretary of state in ensuring that we have fair and responsible lines moving forward,” Chatfield said.

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.