Jan. 4—A Minnesota judicial redistricting panel on Tuesday heard testimony from teams of lawyers representing a voters' rights group, the Democratic and Republican parties and advocates for people of color that presented contrasting plans for drawing new lines for the state's congressional and legislative districts.
The oral arguments were the last public step in the redistricting process that started early last year when a lawsuit asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to declare the current political boundaries unconstitutional because they don't reflect population changes identified in the 2020 U.S. Census.
The five-judge panel, appointed by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court, will now draw their own maps for the state's eight congressional districts, 67 state Senate districts and 134 House districts. But they won't release their maps unless the Legislature fails its duty to set the new district lines by Feb. 15, the legal deadline.
With divided state government, that is unlikely to occur. Courts have drawn Minnesota's district lines every 10 years for the past half century.
The citizens who filed the initial lawsuit, known as the Wattson plaintiffs and headed by former state Senate counsel Peter Wattson, proposed a "least change" redistricting plan that would make just enough alterations to restore population balance among the districts. The other parties argued that approach would protect the political status quo and not reflect major demographic changes during the past decade.
The legal team representing Democrats and Republicans proposed maps that the Wattson plaintiffs contended were drawn to protect, promote or defeat incumbent candidates or parties, a charge lawyers for both parties denied.
A fourth legal team, advocating for more representation for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), proposed creating additional legislative districts with 30 percent or more voting-age residents of minority races. They also proposed putting more American Indian reservations in the same districts. Attorneys for the other teams said those were worthy goals, but the BIPOC map created too many other problems, such as splitting too many cities into different districts.
All the proposals would comply with the judicial panel's requirement that they not deviate from the ideal population by more than 2 percent. Based on last year's Census, congressional districts should have 713,311 or 713,312 residents, state Senate districts 85,172 residents and state House districts 42,586.
All the parties also asserted their plans would create compact and contiguous districts that would be convenient for voters and protect "communities of interest."
As the panel heard the arguments, leaders of the state House Democratic-Farmer-Labor majority urged the Republican-led Senate to release its own redistricting plan instead of kicking the decision to the courts. A House DFL committee proposed new maps last month.
"It's my expectation that the House and Senate will collaborate in the legislative process to draw up-to-date and fair maps for the people of Minnesota," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in a statement. "The House stands ready to complete this work, and we await action from the Senate."
Senate Redistricting Committee Chair Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, responded, "My committee is moving forward with our work."