Here’s what was discussed in the closed redistricting panel session that sparked a lawsuit

By: - December 21, 2021 5:21 pm

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission holds a public hearing in Lansing. Photo by Anna Gustafson

After weeks of pressure from voting rights advocates and journalists and a ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting had to finally release seven memos and an audio recording from a closed session in late October. 

The Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Bridge Michigan and the Michigan Press Association filed a lawsuit against the MICRC earlier this month after the commission refused to release the memos and recordings of a closed session held on Oct. 27. In a 4-3 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court justices concluded that because the meeting “concerned the adoption of the plans and not any pending litigation,” the meeting was supposed to be conducted in an open session.

MICRC spokesperson Edward Woods released the documents late Monday night, along with the audio recording of a 90-minute closed session where the commission met with their legal counsel to discuss two memos: “The Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.” 

During the meeting, the commission’s voting rights lawyer Bruce Adelson cautioned the commission not to use “phrases about adding Black people, subtracting Black people, adding white people, subtracting white people” from districts. 

Supreme Court rules redistricting commission needs to release recordings, memos from closed session

“When phrases like that are used, it just ostensibly rockets up to the top and gives people the ammunition that they’re looking for,” Adelson said. 

Voting rights advocates, who say the maps for the state Senate, state House and congressional districts should have a fair amount of majority-minority districts, have pushed back against the commission’s approach to following the federal guidelines of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Currently, of the maps that the MICRC will vote on next week, the U.S. House and Michigan Senate maps have no majority-minority districts and the proposed state House maps have fewer majority-minority districts than what is currently in place.

Adelson told the commission that the VRA “does not require any numerical amount of majority-minority districts and does not even require majority-minority districts at all.”

“The Voting Rights Act, as you know, is designed and intended to provide an opportunity or ability to elect on the part of protected categories under the statute. That’s based on race, color and membership in a language minority group,” Adelson said. 

While some members of the commission, along with their legal counsel, defended their approach to ensuring the guidelines of the VRA were met, especially in the Detroit area, commissioner Brittni Kellom, a Democrat, had some reservations. 

“I’m getting a little uncomfortable, because it sounds like we’re being empowered to not change what we’ve done. I think we would be doing a disservice,” Kellom said. “If we are going to be acquiesce in our position that we’ve done such a great job and the analysis says that, I think we’re going to miss listening to the citizens in Detroit. … The Detroit area is jacked up, and we need to change it. And I don’t want us to sit here and start thinking about ways that we can keep it the same.”

MICRC Chair Rebecca Szetela, an independent, and Woods held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision. 

When asked if Szetela, who voted in early December to release the documents from the closed session, agreed with the court’s decision, she stated: “I wouldn’t say that the court made the right decision or wrong decision. I think the court made the decision that it did, and we have to follow it.”

“When you go into court, there’s always going to be winners and losers. And that doesn’t necessarily mean, nor does it mean in this case, that our lawyers were giving us bad advice or that they didn’t do a good job,” Szetela said. “It doesn’t mean that at all, it just means that they asserted an opinion. And the court disagreed with that opinion.”

This is the first time in state history that an independent commission has led the redistricting process after voters passed a 2018 measure. The 13-member commission consists of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents. Before then, the Legislature was charged with drawing the maps that would then require the governor’s approval. 

The new panel’s maps will go into effect for the 2022 election and will be in place for 10 years.

Despite being ordered to release these documents following a lawsuit from some of the state’s largest media organizations, the commission is still confident that the public trusts their process. 

“I certainly hope the public hasn’t lost trust, and I don’t think most of the public has,” said Szetela. “We are continuing to receive feedback from the public, robust feedback on our website, hundreds of comments that keep flowing in. So the fact that that’s occurring tells me the public hasn’t lost trust in us and respects this process, and that they know that we are working very hard and very diligently to come up with fair maps in a transparent manner.”

The MICRC is set to vote on the final district maps on Dec. 28. 

Disclosure: The Michigan Advance contributed to the Michigan Press Association’s legal fund.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.