Independent redistricting panel hires GOP-connected law firm, despite concerns

By: - August 13, 2021 5:16 am

Nancy Wang, director of Voters Not Politicians, Oct. 24, 2019 | C.J. Moore

Updated, 8:20 a.m., 8/13/21

After hours of discussion, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) voted 9-2 on Thursday to hire the only law firm that applied to be the panel’s legal counsel once its new U.S. House, and state House and Senate district lines are finalized later this year.

The consideration of the Washington, D.C.-based firm BakerHostetler has been a source of controversy, as some good government and Democratic activists have noted the law firm has a track record of defending gerrymandered maps. Specifically, opponents of the hire point to senior attorney Mark Braden as being a go-to for Republicans wishing to uphold their maps, most notably in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

But, following an interview with attorneys from the firm during its meeting Thursday, the quorum of 11 panel members deliberated and ultimately voted to hire.

Created via constitutional amendment in 2018 by voters, the 13-member panel’s goal is to avoid gerrymandering to favor certain politicians or parties while drawing new maps. Previously, Michigan’s district lines were drawn by the Legislature and approved by the governor.

The independent panel now tasked with this responsibility is composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents. All but two were present Thursday. Two Democrats were absent for Thursday’s vote. Nine members — four Republicans, three independents and two Democrats — voted in favor of hiring BakerHostetler.

Voters Not Politicians, which drafted Proposal 2 that created the panel, said it is “deeply disappointed” that the panel approved BakerHostetler without seeking additional submissions.

“This is a vital position, given the expected legal attacks on the MICRC and its work in coming months. All aspects of the commission’s work must avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest and partisan bias. BakerHostetler, with its track record of enabling partisan gerrymandering, fails that basic test,” said VNP Deputy Director Jamie Lyons-Eddy. “The people of Michigan voted for a non-partisan independent redistricting process, and has trusted the MICRC to carry out that demand. We hope that trust will be fulfilled, but this decision raises serious concerns. Voters Not Politicians will be watching closely in coming months and will insist that this firm and the commission consistently meet the letter of the amendment and the spirit in which it was created.”

The decision coincided with the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of new 2020 redistricting data, which was delayed months because of COVID-19 but released more than a month earlier than the agency had originally anticipated. That data will inform the independent panel’s new maps for the 2022 elections.

Census 2020 data for Michigan population density | U.S. Census Bureau

The MICRC is constitutionally required to have finalized 2022 district maps by Nov. 1. 

Many members noted, following BakerHostetler’s presentation and interview, that the law firm’s only role would be to defend them in court and not to influence the politically independent nature of the MICRC.

“I don’t expect them to be nonpartisan. I expect them to be competent defense attorneys” if the panel gets sued, said independent member Steven Terry Lett.

Republican member Rhonda Lange spoke along similar lines, remarking that “they’re not drawing the lines; they’re defending us,” and emphasizing the firm will not be directly affecting or influencing the commission’s work itself.

The law firm was also the sole applicant for the position, even after the panel put out two requests for legal services.

All members mentioned that they were impressed with the attorneys’ presentations on Thursday, even if they did have reservations about whether or not to make the hire.

Anthony Eid and Rebecca Szetela, both independents, were the two members to vote against the motion. Eid said he was concerned about keeping the public’s trust and expressed a desire to open a third request for legal representation.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office declined to comment, citing the independent nature of the commission.*

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).