Asked & Answered: Jeff Justman ’09 on Pathbreaking Pro Bono Gerrymandering Case
In a highly publicized ruling last month, a panel of three U.S. District Court judges found that 34 congressional and state legislative districts in Michigan were unconstitutional because they were the products of partisan gerrymandering.
Jeff Justman ’09, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels, was one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, the League of Women Voters of Michigan and 11 individual Michigan voters. (The representation was pro bono.)
“The drawing of these districts violated our clients’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, both under a vote-dilution theory, and under a First Amendment association theory,” explains Justman.
Justman recently agreed to answer a few questions about the case and his involvement in it for our inaugural “Asked & Answered” online Q&A feature.
You were part of a team of lawyers at FaegreBD involved in the much-publicized case in League of Women Voters v. Benson. Could you briefly explain your role?
My role was to work with an amazing group of lawyers in our firm (and with our co-counsel in Michigan), across several different offices, to represent the League of Women Voters of Michigan and 11 individual Michigan voters. Our team, myself included, drafted a complaint, defeated a motion to dismiss, worked up the case in discovery, took close to a dozen discovery depositions of both fact and expert witnesses, defeated a summary judgment motion, and then tried the case before a three-judge district court in February, with more than 40 voters providing testimony either live at trial or through trial depositions. As a fantastic trial team of lawyers put on our case in Detroit the week of Feb. 4-8, I led a team of lawyers taking trial depositions of Michigan voters elsewhere across Michigan—in Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. We had lawyers of all skill levels, practice groups, and from different offices participate in this group effort.
Some of the electronic evidence unearthed during discovery was widely reported. Could you describe a couple of the more interesting or surprising pieces of evidence discovered that helped your clients’ case?
To me, the most surprising thing was how candid some of the map-drawers and legislators and their staff were in emails. Explaining that they wanted to draw maps so that they didn’t “look like an obvious gerrymander” or so that they could “cram ALL of the Dem garbage” into four districts are just two examples of that candor. I was also surprised at how almost all of the emails to schedule map-drawing meetings were sent to and from personal email addresses (like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo) because legislators are prohibited from using government emails for political purposes. To me, sending emails to and from personal accounts signified that the people involved in those meetings knew what they were doing was politically driven.
What makes the case important?
The case is important because it goes to the heart of our democracy: how people select their representatives. The district court joined the growing chorus of judges who recognize that partisan gerrymandering—from any party—is a scourge on our democracy.
What was the most difficult aspect of the case that you and your team had to tackle?
I’m not sure this is the most difficult aspect, but one difficulty we encountered was the logistics of securing the testimony of more than 40 witnesses during a week-long period in early February. Our case required that we have at least one voter from every district we were challenging, from all over Michigan. … Coordinating that many people to travel hundreds of miles to give testimony, in early February when the weather in Michigan is unpredictable, was a huge challenge. Some voters got snowed in and had to provide testimony by phone. Others had to travel early or stay with relatives. Others had to travel back from warmer climates to give testimony.
How did your time at Minnesota Law prepare you to handle matters like you had to in this case?
I took several classes in Civil Procedure and Federal Jurisdiction, and they helped me think about how to grapple with issues raised in our case—from justiciability and standing to doctrines like laches and everything in between.
Anything else you would like to add about the case or ruling?
- The case is not over yet—the intervening defendants have filed notices of appeal. Nothing in this Q&A should be construed as suggesting that we know what the outcome will be on the merits. Our team will continue to work to defend this victory for Michigan voters and democracy in general.
- We could not have gotten this far without the amazing professionals and colleagues at Faegre Baker Daniels. There are countless people who have put in thousands of hours on this case, and I am just one part of that amazing team effort.
- This is a result for Michiganders, above anyone else. The Michigan voters I met in this case are truly amazing people, and I hope to keep in touch with some of them as the years go by.