Michigan Supreme Court Approves Gerrymandering Reform Measure For November Ballot

If voters approve, redistricting power would be transferred from state lawmakers to an independent commission.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Tuesday that Michigan voters will be able to vote on a ballot measure this fall that is designed to rein in excessive partisan gerrymandering.

The case is being closely watched because Michigan is considered one of the most severely gerrymandered states in the country. Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2011 and have consistently won nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats, even though Democratic President Barack Obama carried Michigan in his 2012 re-election bid and it is considered a competitive state.

State lawmakers currently control the redistricting process in Michigan, but, under the proposal, that power would be transferred to a 13-person independent commission that would have strict requirements about public meetings and who could serve on it.

Michigan officials had approved the measure for the ballot in June, but a conservative group mounted a legal challenge saying the measure was not an amendment to the state constitution but a general revision. A general revision, they said, could only be approved through a constitutional convention, not a ballot measure. Tuesday’s ruling allows the ballot measure vote.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice David Viviano, who was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said the state’s 1963 constitution originally gave the power to redistrict to a commission, and the ballot proposal amounted to an effort to restore that power.

“VNP’s proposed standards are no revolution in redistricting, and they certainly do not portend a transformation of our form or structure of government,” he wrote in his opinion, referring to Voters Not Politicians, the group backing the proposal. “VNP’s proposal leaves the form and structure of the government essentially as it was envisioned in the 1963 Constitution. Consequently, it is not equivalent to a new constitution and is therefore a permissible amendment.”

Viviano was joined in the majority by Justices Richard Bernstein (D), Bridget Mary McCormack (D) and Elizabeth Clement, who was appointed by Snyder.

Writing for the dissent, Chief Justice Stephen Markman (R) said it was inappropriate to compare the Voters Not Politicians proposal to the redistricting commission envisioned by the 1963 convention. The Michigan Supreme Court invalidated that body in 1982, and he noted lawmakers had had control over redistricting since 1996.

“The pertinent question is not whether replacing the commission created by the 1963 Constitution with the VNP commission would fundamentally change the operation of government, but whether removing the power to redistrict from the Legislature and conferring that power in the VNP commission would fundamentally change the operation of government,” he wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Brian Zahra and Kurtis Wilder, both Snyder appointees.

“The VNP proposal would affect the ‘foundation’ power of government by removing altogether from the legislative branch authority over redistricting and consolidating that power instead in an ‘independent’ commission made up of 13 randomly selected individuals who are not in any way chosen by the people, representative of the people, or accountable to the people.”

Katie Fahey, the organizer who started the reform initiative with a Facebook post, praised the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement.

“Our state Constitution begins with, ‘All political power is inherent in the people.’ The court’s decision upholds our right as citizens to petition our government for positive change,” she said.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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