WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, trial begins in Agee v. Benson, a federal lawsuit brought by Black voters who are challenging Michigan’s state House and state Senate maps under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and U.S. Constitution.
The voters allege that in drawing new legislative maps following the 2020 census, Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) deprived Black voters of an adequate number of districts around Detroit in which they can elect candidates of their choice. The 13-member, citizen-led redistricting commission — which is composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents — was created by a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment. Prior to the 2020 redistricting cycle, the Michigan Legislature drew electoral districts.
The plaintiffs assert that the MICRC’s adopted legislative plans violate Section 2 of the VRA by diluting Black voting power in more than a dozen Detroit-area legislative districts.
The legal challenge specifically points to the fact that the number of majority-Black state House districts decreased from 11 in the previous map to seven in the current map, and the number of majority-Black state Senate districts diminished from two to zero. According to the lawsuit, the commission significantly lowered the Black voting-age population across many legislative districts by “persistently pair[ing] some of the poorest, predominantly Black urban municipalities in the State with some of the wealthiest, white-dominated suburban municipalities.”
The Black voters also contend that by intentionally lowering the percentage of Black voters across Detroit-area districts without a justified interest, the commission used race as the predominant factor in drawing legislative districts, thereby violating the Equal Protection Clause’s prohibition on racial gerrymandering.
On the other hand, MICRC argues that its legislative maps score significantly better in terms of partisan fairness — the principle that districts should not disproportionately advantage one political party over another — when compared to the state’s previous set of maps from 2010. The MICRC also asserts that it did not deny Black voters the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice when it turned majority-Black districts into what are known as cross-over districts — districts where members of the white majority vote for the minority’s preferred candidates.
The plaintiffs refute the MICRC’s argument concerning the degree to which cross-over districts justify the elimination of former majority-minority districts, thus leaving this issue to be considered at trial.
Back in August, a federal three-judge panel presiding over the case allowed the plaintiffs’ claims against most of their originally challenged Detroit-area districts to proceed at trial. The panel ruled partially in favor of MICRC and dismissed the Black voters’ claims against certain House and Senate districts.
At trial, the members of the three-judge panel — all of whom were appointed by former President George W. Bush — will determine whether Michigan’s 1st, 7th, 10th, 12th and 14th House Districts, as well as the state’s 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th Senate Districts, violate Section 2 of the VRA. The panel will also decide whether race was unconstitutionally used as the predominant factor in drawing the 1st, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 14th House Districts and the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th and 11th Senate Districts.
In 2022, Democrats clinched control of both chambers of the Michigan Legislature for the first time in nearly four decades under the new maps. However, Michigan’s Legislative Black Caucus lost nearly 20% of its members in the state House and Senate, leading some to criticize Democrats’ triumph as being at the expense of Black representation.
The Michigan Supreme Court previously rejected a separate legal challenge to the new Detroit-area legislative districts in February 2022. Today’s trial presents a renewed opportunity for a court to weigh in on the districts, this time at the federal level. Since the case involves claims brought under the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge panel — as opposed to a singular district court judge — was appointed to review the case. Any decision from a three-judge panel is directly appealable to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The trial is expected to conclude on Nov. 8, 2023.