SOUTH BEND, Ind. — County Democrats don’t like the redistricted maps passed by the County Board of Commissioners; that much is clear. They claim that the Commissioners should have consulted them before drawing their commissioner districts and should have just tinkered with the edges of the gerrymandered 2010 maps, instead of drawing maps that were more compact and largely followed township lines. You can read the Dems entire lawsuit below.
But their solution is puzzling. Although they decry the alleged lack of public input in drawing the commissioner district lines, their solution is to file a lawsuit that attempts to upend, without any public input, the entire structure of our county government. Apparently, they think that the opinions of a few state court judges, not those of St. Joseph County residents, should control who decides how St. Joseph County residents elect county officials.
Most Indiana counties select the three county commissioners in county-wide elections, and elect a seven-person county council with three at-large members and four members selected by district. These county council district lines are drawn by the county commissioners. For decades, the Indiana Code has provided for a different structure for counties with a population between 250,000 and 270,000; St. Joseph County falls into that category. In our county, commissioners are elected by district, instead of county-wide, and the members of the nine-person county council draw their own district lines (within the commissioner district lines).
Council Democrats first argue in their complaint that the relevant Indiana Code provisions that require St. Joseph County to structure its government in this way, IC 36-2-2-4(c) and IC 36-2-3-4(c), should no longer apply because according to the 2020 census, the county’s population is now 272,912. But this argument is a red herring. Indiana Code 1-1-3.5-3, the provision that governs how census data is used in Indiana statutes, indicates that the 2020 census data isn’t legally effective for purposes of determining a county’s population until April 1, 2022. Because the 2010 census data is still in effect, IC 36-2-2-4(c) and IC 36-2-3-4(c) still apply. And because the Indiana General Assembly’s amendment to this statute, increasing the upper population cap to 300,000, will take effect by this date, St. Joseph County will continue to be governed by these statutory provisions after the 2020 census data take effect on April 1. The county government continues to be in compliance with the Indiana Code, and the Board of Commissioners correctly followed the Indiana Code when adopting the new commissioner districts.
Lacking any other statutory argument, Council Democrats then argue that the provisions of the Indiana Code governing how members of the County Council and Board of Commissioners are elected violate the Indiana Constitution because they constitute special laws that single out Saint Joseph County, requiring the county to structure its government and elect its officials in a different manner than any other county in the state. Reading through Council Democrats’ complaint, one might get the impression that the carve-outs they highlight are unusual. Yet provisions using county population ranges to functionally permit certain counties to set up portions of their county government differently are found throughout the Indiana Code, and are an important way of ensuring that particular counties with unique circumstances can select their public servants (whether county council members, members of an oversight board, or even local judges) based upon that county’s particular needs. Our Board of Commissioners and County Council members, Democrats and Republicans both, have been elected pursuant to these carve-outs for decades, without any challenge to their constitutionality until Council Democrats “discovered” the apparent unconstitutionality of these carve-outs a few weeks ago.
The question of how St. Joseph County should structure its government and select its elected officials is a fair one to ask. It’s also an inherently political question, one that was decided by the people of this county when the carve-outs applying to St. Joseph County were adopted decades ago. Now Council Democrats, angry that Republicans didn’t bow to Democratic pressure when adopting new commissioner district maps, and afraid that these carve-outs no longer give them an advantage at the ballot box, want to change the rules. But Council Democrats aren’t putting this question before the citizens of St. Joseph County for reconsideration. There have been no public hearings seeking opinions, no resolutions, or no proposed bills asking the state legislature to get rid of the suddenly troublesome carve-outs. Instead, Council Democrats are gambling that they can convince state court judges to overhaul St. Joseph County’s entire method of electing its commissioners and council members; whether their constituents want this overhaul of county government is irrelevant.
Fortunately, good judges follow the law, and state law does not support the quixotic attempt of Council Democrats to upend our county government in hopes of maintaining a veto-proof majority on the County Council. County residents can only hope that the state courts recognize this attempted power grab for what it is and resist Council Democrats’ attempts to upend St. Joseph County’s government by judicial fiat.