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Released redistricting commission memos show private comments matched public positions

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission sitting a tables in a large room
Sarah Lehr
/
WKAR-MSU
Members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission hear feedback from the public during a public hearing at the Lansing Center on Oct. 21, 2021.

This week, the state Supreme Court sided with several media organizations suing the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission for the release of several memos and a recording of a closed-door October meeting.

Those documents and the recording are now available to the public.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán with Bridge Michigan, one of the outlets involved in the lawsuit.

Interview Highlights

On what the memos revealed

A lot of these memos, like we said, had to deal with the Voting Rights Act and truly clarify some legal language and explain commissioners, why it was important for them to talk about certain issues in a certain way and not use certain words because that could open the doors for them to be sued. So, it was a lot of what we've heard the attorneys of the commission tell the commission in public, in their in their regular meetings. So, it has been, in a way, a surprise to see that these memos truly were not super revelatory

On what the commission's attorneys said about complying with the Voting Rights Act

What we know is that when the commission met in private, they heard from the attorneys who kept telling them, "Hey, we're not doing anything illegal. It is unpopular, but at the end of the day, it is compliant with the Voting Rights Act, which is the most important thing here if you want these maps to stand in court."

On the precedent set with this Supreme Court ruling

This tells the commission how they have to conduct themselves. This reminds the public that the commission is supposed to meet in public. This reminds the commission, too, that when voters went out and supported this constitutional amendment that created the commission, they wanted full transparency. So, this is huge, and at the end of today, for me, this matters so much

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

This week, the state Supreme Court sided with several media organizations that had been suing the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission for the release of several memos and a recording of a closed-door October meeting.

Those documents and the recording are now available to the public. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
is a reporter with Bridge Michigan, one of the outlets involved in the lawsuit. Thank you for joining me.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán: Thank you for having me, Sophia, appreciate it.

Saliby: Can you briefly explain why your news organization along with several other outlets and the Michigan Press Association filed this lawsuit in the first place?

Martínez-Beltrán: Sure. So, at the core of this argument is a meeting that the commission held on October 27 behind closed doors. This meeting took place in East Lansing, and the commission decided at one point to meet in private to discuss two memos that were crafted by the commission's attorneys.

We know that the memos were related to the Voting Rights Act. That's the act that promotes and protects the voting rights of minority voters in the country. So, the commission discussed these memos in private. Bridge Michigan and other news outlets had asked the commission to release the memos or release portions of the memos.

The Michigan Constitution is clear and says that the commission's business shall be made in public. All of it, not part of it.

We had also asked to hear the recording of that private meeting, but the commission decided to withhold those documents, those materials. They kept saying that the reason they were not going to make them public was because they were protected under...attorney-client privilege, despite the fact that the Michigan Constitution is clear and says that the commission's business shall be made in public. All of it, not part of it, all of it.

And so, Bridge Michigan, The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Press Association took them to court, took them to the Michigan Supreme Court, and we won.

Saliby: You have now seen these memos, the recording of that meeting. What have you learned from them?

Martínez-Beltrán: Not that much that we didn't already know, right? A lot of these memos, like we said, had to deal with the Voting Rights Act and truly clarify some legal language and explain commissioners, why it was important for them to talk about certain issues in a certain way and not use certain words because that could open the doors for them to be sued. So, it was a lot of what we've heard the attorneys of the commission tell the commission in public, in their regular meetings.

So, it has been, in a way, a surprise to see that these memos truly were not super revelatory...The contents of those documents match what the attorneys had said in public, which begs the question, why keep them secret? And why go to court to defend this when you've already said it on the record?

The contents of those documents match what the attorneys had said in public, which begs the question, why keep them secret?

Saliby: We do know that those discussions were about the Voting Rights Act, as you mentioned.

Do you get a sense that those conversations in October played a role in the maps that are now being finalized in these next two weeks, by the end of the year?

Martínez-Beltrán: I think so, you know, we know that many commissioners struggled with this idea of how their commission, as a whole, was drawing minority-majority districts, especially in Southeast Michigan but also in Flint. And minority-majority districts are those districts where minority voters make up the majority there, right, and that their candidate of choice is likely to get elected.

We know that currently Michigan has 17 state legislative districts that are minority-majority but under the proposed plans that the commission has put forward, that number is significantly reduced to a handful. And many commissioners have been struggling with this because they've heard from many Black voters, especially in Detroit, who have said that the maps further dilutes their votes and disenfranchises them. So, they have been struggling with that.

And so what we know is that when the commission met in private, they heard from the attorneys who kept telling them, "Hey, we're not doing anything illegal. It is unpopular, but at the end of the day, it is compliant with the Voting Rights Act, which is the most important thing here if you want these maps to stand in court."

And so, without a doubt, these maps played a role with how the commission drew districts, and if anything, played a role in their mental health, because they knew that what they were doing was okay, according to their attorneys.

Saliby: Just briefly, can you talk about the significance of this Supreme Court ruling as a journalist, you know, involved in reporting and following this story? You are a part of this now.

Martínez-Beltrán: Yeah, I mean, I'm proud of the fact that the press came together. It is, you know, you don't see newspapers or other news outlets coming together and fighting for something, right? And we saw how the two biggest newspapers in the state, the media trade organization, Bridge Michigan, we came together, we fought this and it is significant because this sets a precedent.

This reminds the commission, too, that when voters went out and supported this constitutional amendment that created the commission, they wanted full transparency.

This tells the commission how they have to conduct themselves. This reminds the public that the commission is supposed to meet in public. This reminds the commission, too, that when voters went out and supported this constitutional amendment that created the commission, they wanted full transparency.

So, this is huge, and at the end of today, for me, this matters so much, because every time I go to work, and I know my colleagues as well, and we fight for transparency, we're fighting on behalf of the people's right to know. And this week, we won, and the public won which is the most important thing here.

Saliby: Sergio Martínez-Beltrán covers the redistricting commission for Bridge Michigan. Thank you for being here.

Martínez-Beltrán: Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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