By Paul Egan
A federal three-judge panel on Friday rejected Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's proposed consent decree to end a gerrymandering lawsuit brought by the Michigan League of Women Voters.
Instead, the panel ordered the case -- which alleges Michigan Republicans who control the Legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered Michigan's congressional, state Senate and state House seats to benefit their candidates and disadvantage Democrats-- to go to trial on Tuesday.
The suit was initially brought against Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who was vigorously defending the drawing of the political lines. Benson, a Democrat, inherited the lawsuit in Johnson's place when she took office on Jan. 1.
The ruling leaves Benson in the position of defending political districts she has described as gerrymandered and constitutionally indefensible.
"The court has ruled, and I respect its decision," Benson said in a statement. "As the state's chief election officer, I will continue efforts to resolve this lawsuit in the best interests of all voters and in compliance with constitutional requirements."
The three-judge panel -- U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay, Detroit U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, and Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist -- ruled that Benson "lacks the authority -- absent the express consent of the Michigan Legislature, which she does not have -- to enter into the proposed consent decree."
In issuing the order, the panel came down on the side of Republicans who intervened in the case and opposed the proposed settlement.
In recent weeks, Republicans reacted with alarm and outrage to news that Benson was working to settle the lawsuit, noting that League of Women Voters attorney Mark Brewer is a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. Republicans speculated that Benson and Brewer would craft a backroom agreement that would force Michigan Senate elections two years early, in 2020, in an attempt to flip the Legislature from Republican to Democratic control.
On Jan. 25, Benson and the League proposed a much more modest settlement that would only directly impact 11 state House districts, leaving state Senate and congressional districts untouched. She proposed that Michigan lawmakers would redraw the districts deemed unconstitutional in the consent agreement.
"I believe today's settlement strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 redistricting maps while reaching a remedy that is limited in scope," Benson said.
Regardless of the outcome of the League of Women Voters lawsuit, Michigan's new citizen redistricting commission, approved by voters in the November election, will draw lines for the 2022 elections.
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