DETROIT – A clash over the Michigan Constitution hit the state's highest court Monday as a commission that must draw seats for Congress and the Legislature asked for new deadlines to produce maps because of a delay in detailed census data.
The request drew sharp questions from the court's two most conservative justices, Brian Zahra and David Viviano, who seemed reluctant to change dates that were put in the constitution by voters just a few years ago.
“You're coming to us in advance looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. That's pretty unique in Michigan's history,” Viviano said.
New district maps must be adopted by Nov. 1 after a 45-day period for public comment, according to a constitutional amendment approved in 2018. But the commission is not expecting final census data until Sept. 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The commission acknowledged that some census data will be available by August, but it doesn't favor those numbers and believes they could be unreliable.
“Why are we here? For transparency and goodwill. ... Both the public and the commission have been put in an untenable position,” said Julianne Pastula, attorney for the commission.
She told the Supreme Court that legal cover is needed before deadlines are missed and lawsuits by critics are contemplated. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, also favors pushing the date to January.
Justice Richard Bernstein, a Democratic-nominated justice, suggested new deadlines were not a big deal, especially after a pandemic.
“Why can't we just get this one right?” he said.
But Viviano and Zahra, both Republican-nominated justices, repeatedly questioned the court's role in the matter. Viviano suggested it could become a precedent-setting blow to democracy.
“Isn't the question about who gets to get it right?” he said after Bernstein's remark. "Was it the people when they adopted this amendment, did they get it right? Or they got it wrong and we're gonna get it right. And then we're not a democracy anymore, right?
“We don't care what they say because we're wiser and we're going to get it right," Viviano continued. "So we'll just rewrite the constitution, a little bit here and a little bit over there until we get it just right. This august body will take over for the people.”
The redistricting commission was approved by voters to take mapmaking out of the hands of lawmakers and the governor. Four are aligned with the Democratic Party, four with the Republican Party and five with no party.
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