Democrats are taking their case to court over district lines approved by the Republican-controlled Oakland County Board of Commissioners earlier this month in the latest chapter of the political saga revolving around the redistricting process that, until recently, was controlled by Democrats for the first time in the county’s history.
The nine members of the county board’s Democratic Caucus — including county Commissioner Marcia Gershenson (D-West Bloomfield), the lone Democrat representing a portion of the lakes area — are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The suit alleges the new district map for the county’s governing body, which under a new state law upheld by the state Supreme Court has been trimmed from 25 to 21 members, fails to meet the requirements of state law.
The Democrats’ lawsuit filed with the state Court of Appeals contends that the district lines approved by the county board earlier this month violate Public Act (PA) 261 of 1966 based on the number of communities divided into multiple county commission districts (12 in the Democrats’ map vs. 16 in the GOP’s); a lower population deviation (7.3 percent compared to 8.3 percent in the GOP’s map); and more majority-minority districts (two in the Democrats’ map vs. one in the GOP’s).
Democrats also argue that the Republicans’ map, which the lawsuit contends “is reasonably expected to result in a Commission with 14 Republicans and 7 Democrats,” is gerrymandered for partisan advantage, something that’s prohibited under PA 261.
The legal challenge asks for the state Court of Appeals to direct the county board, acting as the Oakland County Apportionment Commission, to adopt Commissioner David Woodward’s (D-Royal Oak) proposed district lines.
“Republicans on the Oakland County Commission should adopt the most legally sound plan,” Woodward stated in a press release. “They clearly didn’t adopt a legal, fair plan so they could gerrymander a Republican majority to maintain, as (Oakland County Executive L.) Brooks Patterson said, ‘Republican control for the foreseeable future.’”
“As we have repeatedly seen Republicans in Oakland County do not care about playing by the rules or following the law,” said Oakland County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Houston. “They were rebuked four times by courts in their pursuit of protecting Republican control in Oakland County. They changed redistricting laws and it should be no surprise that now they ignore the law. Following the letter and spirit of the law means you should adopt the plan that most closely follows the law, regardless of political considerations… I’m anxious to see the Court of Appeals address this outrageous partisan overreach.”
The new commissioner district map was recently adopted by the county board under PA 280 of 2011, which was approved at the end of 2011 by Republican lawmakers who argued that it saves Oakland County about $250,000 annually in salaries and benefits for county commissioners by shrinking the board’s size, but Democrats decried it as political maneuvering to maintain Republican control of the county board after Democrats controlled the redistricting process required every 10 years following release of U.S. Census data.
Earlier this year, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette and the state Court of Appeals in separate rulings deemed PA 280 unconstitutional, but the state Supreme Court in a divided 4-3 vote determined that it is adherent to the state’s governing document.
Democrats held the majority over the redistricting process after the 2008 elections of Prosecutor Jessica Cooper and Treasurer Andy Meisner. They, along with county Democratic Party Chairman Frank Houston, were required under law at the time to serve as members of the county Reapportionment Commission, which approved county board district boundaries a year ago.
Those boundaries were also challenged by Republicans on their constitutionality, but eventually the state Supreme Court didn’t take up the case because an appeal to an affirmative Court of Appeals decision wasn’t filed prior to the required deadlines — which fell right around the time the state Legislature was taking up House Bill 5187, the enacting legislation for PA 280.
“I’m not surprised by the Democrats filing the lawsuit,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Gingell (R-Lake Orion), the sponsor of the Republicans’ map that was approved Friday, April 13. “I believe the map that was adopted (on April 13) was proper and we’ll let the court process play out.”
Mary Ellen Gurewitz, the attorney representing the Democrats, has asked for an expedited process due to the fact that the filing deadline for county board candidates is May 15.