LANSING, Mich. -- A three-judge panel on Friday rejected a proposed deal to redraw at least 11 Michigan House districts for the 2020 election, saying the state's new Democratic secretary of state had no authority to make a pact with fellow Democrats who accused Republicans of crafting unconstitutional maps.
The decision means the federal judges will hold a trial, starting Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Democratic voters who claimed districts were shaped by Republican operatives to guarantee the party's dominance in the state Capitol after the 2010 census. They said constitutional rights were violated when Democratic areas were packed in certain districts or diluted elsewhere.
Former Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson was a defendant in the suit as the state's chief election officer. The office changed hands — and parties — when Jocelyn Benson won in November.
Benson moved to settle the case before trial , proposing last week that the GOP-led Legislature redraw at least 11 of Michigan's 110 House districts. She said it would fix "egregious" examples of partisan gerrymandering while not impacting 38 state Senate seats or 14 congressional districts. Her proposal, if approved, would have affected an uncertain number of adjacent districts, too.
But the panel — Judge Eric Clay of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood of Michigan's Eastern District and U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist of Michigan's Western District — said Benson lacked authority to enter into the proposed consent decree because the state constitution gives the Legislature power to enact laws regulating elections. They noted that Michigan's Republican congressmen and two GOP state House members opposed the settlement.
"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."
She had said the deal was significantly narrower than what could result from a trial the state would likely lose — the possibility of a court-ordered redrawing of all three maps, resulting in "political upheaval."
Laura Cox, the likely next chairwoman of the state Republican Party, reacted to the ruling by accusing Benson of conspiring to make a "backroom deal" with a lawyer for the plaintiffs — former state Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer.
"Benson's partisan power grab was called out by the court," Cox said in a statement.
GOP lawmakers who intervened in the suit have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the entire proceeding until the high court rules on redistricting cases from North Carolina and Maryland. Responses to the motion are due Monday, a day before the Michigan trial is scheduled to begin.
White contributed from Detroit.
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