Republicans slam ‘Backroom Benson,’ ask U.S. Supreme Court to intervene

By: - January 29, 2019 4:21 pm

Attorneys representing Michigan Republican legislators opposed to a proposed redistricting plan have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a federal lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering.

Jocelyn Benson | Facebook

The move by the GOP attorneys came at roughly the same time that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the defendant in the Michigan case, announced a proposed settlement with the case’s plaintiffs that would redraw 11 state House districts for the 2020 election, a reduction from previous proposals.

Republicans, including Michigan GOP chair candidate Laura Cox, have taken to using the slur “Backroom Benson” on social media.

In a memo sent last week, the GOP attorneys state that two cases the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule on later this year would render irrelevant the federal court case set to start next month in Michigan. Should the Supreme Court accept the request to intervene, that could also lead to challenges to the consent decree.

In court documents, attorneys for Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and state Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) — who have both moved to intervene in the case — list multiple reasons why the nation’s high court should stay the lower court’s proceedings.

Lee Chatfield | Nick Manes photo

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, where League of Women Voters of Michigan, et. al., v. Jocelyn Benson currently sits awaiting trial, has not been inclined to do so, the attorneys allege in their request.

Most notably, the attorneys note that the U.S. Supreme Court has already agreed to hear two cases — one in Maryland and one in North Carolina, both alleging partisan, unconstitutional gerrymandering — and those cases “involve identical claims” to the Michigan case.

“In [the Maryland and North Carolina cases], this Court will ultimately resolve currently unanswered questions regarding the justiciability, legal standards, factual inquiries, and appropriate remedies in partisan gerrymandering/redistricting claims,” the attorneys write in their memo Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “Indeed, the instant action involves just such a claim.”

Benson spokesman Shawn Starkey noted the lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial Feb. 5.

“Secretary Benson felt it was her responsibility as the defendant to try and reach a settlement with the League of Women Voters that ensures a fair and equitable resolution for the residents of Michigan, saves taxpayer money and ensures fair representation,” he said.

“The consent decree provides for the least amount of disruption while acknowledging the harm done to voters through partisan gerrymandering. It’s now in the hands of the three-judge panel to decide on the next steps.”

Case history

There’s been a flurry of activity in the case over the last two weeks.

The proposed settlement announced by Benson on Friday would seek to redraw the maps of 11 State House districts for the 2020 election. That makes for a significant reduction from previous proposals that would have redrawn “fewer than 34” Congressional and legislative districts.

Included in earlier redistricting proposals were some state Senate districts. Had those been redrawn it would have likely pushed up Senate elections to 2020 and could have resulted in at three GOP state senators having their terms cut in half, as the Advance previously reported.

It’s unclear, however, how redrawing 11 state House districts would impact the lines of neighboring districts.

Benson, for her part, maintains that several of the current maps — drawn in 2011 by the GOP-led Legislature and signed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder — are unconstitutional.

Laura Cox

“As the state’s chief election officer, I have a responsibility to ensure our elections operate in a manner that is fair, accessible and in compliance with the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote.” Benson said in a statement Friday. “I believe [Friday’s proposed] settlement strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 redistricting maps while reaching a remedy that is limited in scope and impact given the length of time these districts have been in place.”

Several Michigan Republicans, however, aren’t buying that and have taken to calling the Secretary of State “Backroom Benson” on Twitter. Cox, a former state representative from Livonia, is one of them and said last week that she believes that Benson and attorney Mark Brewer, a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, are trying to “rig districts in Democrats’ favor.”

Benson’s office, however, contends that all deals have been made in good faith and the parties have all had the opportunity to weigh in on the proposed settlement.

“There is no backroom when lawyers for the League of Women Voters, the congressional intervenors and the secretary are all on the same email exchanging drafts of the consent decree, which is publicly filed for consideration by a three-judge federal panel,” said Starkey.

In a podcast posted on Monday by MIRS, Genesee County GOP political consultant David Forsmark noted Michigan politicians’ lengthy history of gerrymandering districts and that the practice is often as much about benefiting an incumbent as it is about benefiting the party.

While Forsmark said Benson’s exact motivations for wanting to redraw several districts are unclear, he added that he doesn’t believe it’s about fairer elections as the secretary of state has said.

“It’s 100 percent politics,” Forsmark 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.