St. Joseph County Council hires Indianapolis-based firm for potential redistricting lawsuit
The St. Joseph County Council voted Tuesday evening to retain Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller for a potential lawsuit over the county’s redistricting process.
That’s after the County Board of Commissioners voted 2 to 1 last week to approve new legislative maps that create a heavily minority and Democratic District 2 while making the other two districts whiter and more Republican.
“We were hoping to work with the commissioners on the maps like the council did in 2011,” Council President Pro-Tempore and local Democratic Party Chair Diana Hess said in a phone interview Wednesday. “But that didn’t happen and, regrettably, here we are.”
The council voted to retain Ice Miller in a 6 to 3 party-line vote. Hess couldn’t offer a specific cost for litigation, but said it could run to $100,000 on the high end.
A timeline for potential litigation is also still in question. Kip Tew, an Ice Miller lawyer and former chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, said there’s a sense of urgency – but parts of the process are out of the council’s control.
“I think by the very fact we’re having a special meeting tonight, there’s a recognition that time is of the essence,” Tew said Tuesday. “The courts are a separate branch of government and they run at their own pace. Sometimes they run at the pace that legislators need them to run at, and sometimes they don’t.”
The filing window for 2022 local elections opens in January, less than two months away.
State law doesn’t require public comment at special meetings, but council members voted to allow it after an attendee requested it.
Several Republican county residents came forward to say that the commissioners’ maps were fair and that the council wasn’t being transparent enough in its push for a lawsuit.
“That process and transparency they were all attacking us on during the commissioners’ meetings – that just goes right out the window,” County GOP Chairman Zach Potts said. “When the commissioners are doing something, they have to do everything how the Democrats want, but when the council does something, they play by an entirely different rule book.”
Democratic council members Robert Kruszynski, Diana Hess and Mark Catanzarite voted against allowing public input.
“We’d already had extensive public comment on how people feel about the maps and the redistricting,” Hess said. “So I just felt there was no reason to open up the floor again and hear what we just had heard, basically.”
Critics of the new maps say they’re gerrymandered and pack Democratic and minority voters into the new District 2. Supporters say they create districts of equal population and keep communities of interest together.
The new District 1 includes all of Granger and the rural western portions of the county, the new District 2 encompasses most of the city of South Bend, and the new District 3 includes all of Mishawaka, the southernmost portion of South Bend and the rural areas directly south.
Due to a change in Indiana law this year that only applies to St. Joseph County, the commissioners no longer need the council’s approval to draw electoral maps.
The change also mandates County Council districts must be within County Commissioner districts. Under the new maps, only two of the current County Council members would live in District 2, leaving an open seat, and four would have to compete for the three seats in District 3.
That could jeopardize the council’s current 6 to 3, veto-proof Democratic majority.
This story has been updated.
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