Michigan court: Cass County district map illegal, must be redrawn

Published 4:32 am Tuesday, May 17, 2022

DOWAGIAC — Cass County officials are headed back to the drawing board, and one local man’s claims of gerrymandering have been validated.

In the case of Pedersen v. Cass County, the Michigan Court of Appeals has declared Cass County’s district apportionment map invalid, as it violates MCL 46.404(b), which states all drawn districts must be contiguous. According to the court ruling, the commission adopted a plan which improperly split Dowagiac into multiple districts, and included one area of land that does not share a border with its parent district.

“I feel vindicated,” said Jim Pedersen, a Cassopolis resident who filed the lawsuit in November 2021. “It was an illegal map – I feel justified in calling that out.”

Pederson accused the Cass County Apportionment Commission of adopting a plan that unnecessarily split the city of Dowagiac, diluting the minority vote in a once-competitive commissioner district and gerrymandering Democrats out of their only chance at a commissioner seat.

In addition to its ruling, the court said Pedersen presented evidence that Cass County drew the lines to gain a political upper-hand.

“The decision to split Dowagiac resulted in the lack of contiguity for one of the districts,” said the court opinion, written by Thomas C. Cameron, Mark J. Cavanagh and Michael F. Gadola. “This Court could infer that the Commission adopted a plan that split Dowagiac for an improper purpose.” 

According to an affidavit from Naomi Ludman – who is a member of the apportionment committee – a Democrat represented Dowagiac on the county commission from 2008 to 2020. Ludman, the only Democrat on the commission, also was the only member to vote against the adopted plan.

“Because the evidence established demographically and cartographically that the [adopted plan] effected a partisan advantage, the evidence permitted an inference that the split of Dowagiac was intentional,” the opinion said. “The Commission maintains that its notes establish that partisan considerations did not come into play in the drafting and selection of the [adopted plan]. However, the record permits an inference that the statements to that effect were not credible. 

Commissioner Mark Howie said the commission operated under the assumption that the law required commissioners to ignore data about partisan lean, but the court disagreed.

“The Legislature did not state that the commissioners could not consider partisan demographics; it provided that the commissioners could not draw the districts to effect partisan political advantage,” the opinion said. “The Commission had the authority to consider the partisan demographics in order to maintain the status quo because maintaining the status quo would ensure that the newly drawn districts would not unfairly alter the existing allocation of political power.”

Since it already invalidated the maps based on contiguity, however, the court determined that it “need not resolve whether the Commission divided Dowagiac for an impermissible purpose.”

The apportionment commission now must adopt a new map that complies with state law. According to Cass County Clerk and apportionment commission chair Monica McMichael, the commission expected to meet about the issue this week.

“I am in the process of evaluating the Court’s opinion with legal counsel,” said McMichael, who also authored the previously adopted plan. “The court identified a single contiguity issue.  I am confident the commission can address it satisfactorily with a minor change to the existing 2021 apportionment plan.”

The commission may be required to explain any new map if it still includes a split of Dowagiac.

“If the Commission should again select an apportionment plan that divides Dowagiac on remand, we instruct the Commission to explain how that split was necessary to meet the population requirements and preserve the integrity of other municipal boundaries,” the opinion said. 

For Pedersen, a fair map is all he wants to see.

“I get grief sometimes with people saying, ‘You live in Cassopolis, why are you suing over Dowagiac?’” he said. “I’m suing over the principle. … I want fair elections and fair representation. I don’t want to see the city of Dowagiac divided for partisan gain.”