COA reverses for Madison County commissioners in redistricting ordinance dispute

A redistricting dispute initially resolved in favor of two citizens has been reversed in favor of the local Madison County government after the Indiana Court of Appeals found that an ordinance meant to more evenly distribute the population did not run afoul of the controlling redistricting statute. The ruling comes as Indiana prepares for the 2020 election season.

Because of a population disparity in Madison County’s three districts used to elect county commissioners, the Madison County Board of Commissioners in October 2019 adopted a redistricting ordinance that would make the districts roughly equal in population.

Following the adoption of the redistricting ordinance, the new populations were 44,264 in District 1; 44,008 in District 2; and 43,364 in District 3, leaving a total population deviation of 2.05%. Prior to the enactment, the disparity in population between the old districts resulted in a “maximum population deviation” of 120.64%.

Kevin Sipe and Wesley Likens filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction to the ordinance  Dec. 30, 2019 – six days before the opening of the filing period for candidates in the 2020 primary election. The men, who argued they were “personally affected” by the changes, asserted the ordinance failed to comply with the redistricting statute, divided Anderson Township into three different districts with no showing or finding of “necessity,” and failed by procedure in that no special meeting was ever called by the county auditor to determine any “necessity”.

During an emergency hearing, Likens asserted that he was a voter who had not been asked his opinion regarding the redistricting plan and that the changes might prevent his wife from running for the office of commissioner. However, he did not know which district he lived in under either plan.

For his part, Sipe testified that under the redistricting ordinance, District 3 was geographically larger than the old district and that it included “people that do not really know me . . . like the previous North District people would know me.” Sipe has previously run for election to the commissioners, according to the Anderson Herald Bulletin, though the COA said he testified that he did not know if he would run for office again.

The Madison Circuit Court ultimately granted the preliminary injunction, finding among other things that “(u)nder the newly proposed Ordinance No. 2019-BC-0-9 there could conceivably be three (3) commissioners chosen from downtown Anderson Indiana, thereby completely eliminating the voice of rural Madison County citizens in the executive branch of local government.”

Although the trial court found the ordinance failed to comply with Indiana law both on its face and by procedure, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in a Thursday decision, finding the redistricting ordinance did not run afoul of the redistricting statute.

“We first address the trial court’s conclusion that the Redistricting Ordinance is invalid because the County Auditor did not call for a special meeting to determine any necessity for redistricting. This misreads Section 4,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote for the appellate court, referencing Indiana Code § 36-2-2-4.. “… We do not read Section 4 to mean that the Commissioners cannot redistrict in an odd-numbered year without a special meeting called by the County Auditor. If the General Assembly intended to impose such a restriction, it could have done so explicitly, but it did not.”

Additionally, the appellate court found as clearly erroneous the trial court’s conclusion that the ordinance was facially invalid because it failed to specifically declare a necessity of dividing Anderson Township. Believing the determination of whether dividing a township among districts is “clearly necessary” is a legislative judgment that should be given considerable deference by the judiciary, the appellate court found the commissioners “well within their discretion to determine that it was clearly necessary to divide Anderson Township among districts” so they would be balanced in population.

“The Plaintiffs cannot prevail on the merits of their case, and the trial court erred in granting their request for a preliminary injunction. We therefore reverse the trial court’s entry of the preliminary injunction and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the COA concluded.

The case is Madison County Board of Commissioners, Madison County Clerk, Madison County Auditor, and Madison County Election Board v. Kevin M. Sipe and Wesley T. Likens, 20A-PL-51.

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