Justices give voters chance to redraw map


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “spines” or the lack thereof.

It may have reached a crescendo at the beginning of the month as a (mostly) grateful nation paid tribute to the late John McCain, the longtime Arizona senator whose service to his country made him a towering figure in American politics over the past three decades.

McCain, of course, displayed a steely spine as a Navy pilot, surviving two crashes and more than 5 years in captivity during the Vietnam War.

His political backbone may have been even stronger, based on a willingness to vote his conscience when the good of the American people was at stake.

That unusual trait garnered McCain bi-partisan respect, as evidenced by the outpouring of salutes at a series of memorial services held for him.

Former Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., a Democrat, spoke glowingly of his former Senate colleague, noting that, “John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized around not tribe but ideals.”

The theme was echoed by Republican Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general and McCain’s first congressional chief of staff.

“He would not stand by as people try to trample the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment,” said Woods, pointing a not-so-subtle finger at the self-anointed leader of the Republican Party, who skirted military service during the Vietnam War through a series of deferments including one for “bone spurs” in the heels of his feet.

The current batch of congressional Republicans, with very few exceptions, has repeatedly looked the other way when the time has come to take a stand against outrageous examples of political partisanship, preferring instead to feather their own nests at the expense of the electorate. Perhaps they could re-discover their spines by looking to Michigan, where a recent Supreme Court decision offered some hope that political fairness still has a place in our governmental society.

The decision centered on a proposed ballot initiative for the November 2018 election in which a grassroots coalition of citizens is seeking voter approval for a non-partisan proposal to draw the state’s congressional and legislative boundary lines. In effect, the proposal would do away with the practice of “gerrymandering,” an obscure political term that most of us first became acquainted with in a junior high civics class.

While the subject of gerrymandering may have been boring then, its long-term political consequences have unceremoniously and repeatedly changed the face of the nation, seldom for the public good. After each census, it offers the political party in power an opportunity to exact 10 years of revenge, drawing district lines to suit their best interests while laying waste to such cherished principles as “one man, one vote.”

Though it is by no means a partisan issue, leaders of the Republican Party in Michigan, among other states, have long recognized the importance of preserving the practice as a means of ensuring their rule. Party leaders view it as a way to build a “voter-proof firewall” that will hold up for at least a decade.

Which is why a Michigan group now known as “Voters Not Politicians” was born in the Great Lakes State.

In less than a year, VNP secured more than 425,000 valid signatures through an all-volunteer petition drive to place a proposal on this fall’s ballot that – if approved – would create a citizens’ redistricting commission to draw the political map after each census. Not surprisingly, the proposal was immediately challenged in the courts by GOP backers on dubious constitutional and procedural grounds. The state Court of Appeals rejected the challenge, a ruling that was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which counts five Republican-appointed justices among its seven members.

In light of the current political climate, court observers would have placed long odds on a VNP victory, but two of the Republican appointees found that ever-elusive spine, voting with the 4-3 majority to place the ballot proposal  before statewide voters this November.

A debt of gratitude goes to Justice David Viviano, a former Macomb County judge, and recently-appointed Justice Elizabeth Clement, former chief legal counsel for Governor Rick Snyder. They defied conventional political wisdom and took a stand for democratic principles, joining Justices Bridget McCormack and Richard Bernstein in bringing the matter to the voters.

Clement, who faces election this November, already is paying a price for her so-called “defection” from the Republican ranks on the court, earning a chorus of jeers at the recent GOP Convention in Lansing for straying from the party line.

Such voices hopefully will be drowned out at the polls on November 6, when Michigan voters take a long-awaited opportunity to right a political wrong that has been decades in the making.