Panel of judges hears arguments on Minnesota's new political maps

Census Minnesota Redistricting
Noelle Fries, left, and Galen Biel, both of Minneapolis, attend a rally at the Minnesota Capitol in April 2019 to kick off a year-long drive to try to ensure that all Minnesota residents are counted in the 2020 census. New census data has given legislators tasked with redrawing Minnesota's political map a lot to think about. A judicial panel may well end up drawing new congressional and legislative district boundaries.
Steve Karnowski/AP

Updated: 5:20 p.m.

A five-judge panel is ready to draw new boundaries for Minnesota congressional and legislative districts if necessary.

The panel met Tuesday to hear from lawyers representing people who are trying to influence the once-a-decade process through litigation and their own proposed maps. The judges heard arguments for and against four separate proposals.

The differences among the four plans are detailed and sometimes hard to detect without a close look. They range from adding or subtracting entire counties from congressional districts to dividing cities or even neighborhoods into different legislative districts. The goal is to make the districts equal in population and representative of the changes the state has experienced in growth over the past decade.

Proposed congressional district map
Proposed congressional district map by former Minnesota Senate lawyer Peter Wattson and former Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky.
Courtesy of Minnesota Supreme Court

Attorney Adam Sienkowski represents the group of plaintiffs that includes former Minnesota Senate lawyer Peter Wattson and former Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky.

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Wattson filed a lawsuit months ago to put the issue in front of the courts in the event the Legislature can’t agree on new district boundaries ahead of the 2022 election. 

Sienkowski said their maps were drawn by Minnesotans, for Minnesotans with an approach designed to make the least change to district boundary maps that have been in law for the past decade.

“Wattson plaintiffs were focused less on statistics and more on what makes sense on the ground for the people and communities in this state,” Sienkowski said.

Proposed congressional district map
Proposed congressional district map by Paul Anderson and other plaintiffs.
Courtesy of Minnesota Supreme Court

Elizabeth Brama, an attorney representing Paul Anderson and other plaintiffs who sued on behalf of Republicans, argued that their redistricting plan is the most fair and equitable.

“We did that without creating a partisan plan,” Brama said. “We did that without undermining any particular group or interest, and we therefore urge the panel to adopt the plan that was set forth here — both congressional and legislative plans — by the Anderson plaintiffs.”

Other attorneys made similar pitches for their competing plans. They also took turns critiquing the other proposed maps.

Brian Dillon, a lawyer representing Dr. Bruce Corrie and other plaintiffs, said their plan was unique because it was developed with significant input from people of color and other diverse community members.

“The campaign’s goal was simple: To develop a redistricting plan that best preserves diverse communities of interest in an effort to make government more responsive to their needs and interests,” Dillon said.

Proposed congressional district map
Proposed congressional district map by plaintiff Frank Sachs and other Democrats
Courtesy of Minnesota Supreme Court

David Zoll, an attorney representing plaintiff Frank Sachs and other Democrats, insisted that his clients’ plan is not partisan.

“It was not drawn to favor incumbents. It was not drawn to favor candidates. It was not drawn to favor a political party. It was drawn to fully embrace all the principles adopted by this panel,” Zoll said.

The principles adopted by the panel in November include drawing districts to “protect the equal opportunity of racial, ethnic and language minorities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.”

The panel will settle the redistricting issue if the divided Legislature fails to reach an agreement next month. Court solutions have been needed for many decades.

But at the end of the hearing, presiding Judge Louise Bjorkman stressed that for now it remains the Legislature’s job. 

“We are, and continue to be, fully prepared to let the Legislature do its work,” Bjorkman said. “And only in the event that they do not produce maps by Feb. 15, 2022, will this panel of judges issue maps.”

Correction (Jan. 4, 2022): A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Joe Mansky. The above copy is updated and corrected.