Why a judge’s decision on Boston’s redistricting map may take some time

Here's the latest on the federal lawsuit over the city's new political boundaries.

The new Boston district map.
The "unity map" gained City Council approval. City of Boston via screenshot

The fate of Boston’s redistricting map — whether it remains in place or returns to the City Council for a do-over — is now in the hands of a federal judge, following days of testimony in a lawsuit alleging the controversial map of the city’s new voting district boundaries approved last fall is illegal.

More on redistricting:

Judge Patti B. Saris made clear Wednesday she will not draw a new map herself or appoint an independent party to do so, according to The Dorchester Reporter.

But she will have to decide whether to let what supporters dubbed the “unity map” stand as is, or order councilors to chart out a new one.


Deciding that may take some time, Saris indicated.

With this year’s municipal election already off to a start, Saris has a maximum of six weeks to determine a course of action. She also has to watch through roughly 20 hours of council meeting videos, per the Reporter.

“Don’t expect an opinion right away,” she told attorneys Wednesday.

The initial legal challenge was filed soon after the council voted 9-4 to advance the map and Mayor Michelle Wu signed it into law last year.

Redistricting is a once-in-a-decade process. Councilors set the new political boundaries for the city’s nine districts every 10 years based on population changes from the U.S. Census.

Council progressives carried the passing vote in November, amidst a tumultuous process.

Supporters of the unity map say it will give more political agency to Boston’s communities of color, and in turn, it will satisfy the city’s requirement under federal law to ensure voters of color can freely elect candidates without being routinely and systemically outnumbered by white voters in their districts.

The changes were necessary, as the city saw its population increase between 2010 and 2020, especially in the Seaport, they said.

Opponents, however, have decried updates to the map that moved a section of Dorchester — near Cedar Grove and Adams Village — from District 3 into District 4 and a section of South Boston that’s home to a public housing complex from District 2 to District 3.


Councilors Ed Flynn, Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, and Erin Murphy contended the map splits their neighborhoods and divides their communities. Flynn and Baker have each given $10,000 to the legal cause challenging the map now in federal court, according to the Reporter‘s Gintautas Dumcius.

A lawsuit was initially filed by South Boston residents and community groups in Suffolk Superior Court to block the council from voting, but the judge declined to do so.

That case was ultimately amended with the latest arguments and plaintiffs and moved to federal court, according to GBH News.

Here’s the latest:

The closing arguments

In closing arguments Wednesday, Paul Gannon, the attorney for the plaintiffs and a former state lawmaker, argued the map cannot be legal because councilors used race as the main factor in considering new boundaries, not population, according to the Reporter.

Gannon said the process was a plan to rip apart the “heart and soul” of District 3 in Cedar Grove and Neponset — one that will ultimately target white voters who regularly turn out in high numbers for elections, GBH News reports.

Furthermore, councilors violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting voting power in a historically Black-majority district through unnecessarily moving those white voters into the district, Gannon and the plaintiffs contended, according to the outlet.


Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch, whose own district includes the area of Dorchester now under scrutiny, testified Monday that Cedar Grove and Adams Village — which moved to District 4 from District 3 — have shared amenities like youth sports leagues and veterans posts that connect them to Neponset in District 3, per the Reporter.

“The churches are what holds it all together though,” he said. “It’s been that way for a long, long time.”

Lynch said the new map “changes the whole dynamic there.”

“Very divisive, I think, in terms of the identity of the area,” he said.

Attorneys representing the Wu administration on Wednesday said the plaintiffs have an “unrealistic desire” to keep the old districts untouched, according to the Reporter.

Attorney Lon Povich argued although plaintiffs can say the map rips apart neighborhoods, the residents there will still go to the same churches and the same stores as they did before.

“This is not an urban renewal project in the West End,” he said.

Additionally, Povich highlighted comments from October when Baker referred to Ward 16 in Neponset as his “Jerusalem,” the newspaper reported.

Still, even after the process, 85 percent of voters kept Baker as their councilor and 88 percent of District 4 voters kept Councilor Brian Worrell, despite the “Jerusalem precincts” changing districts, Povich said.

Another city-hired attorney, Jennifer Miller, told the judge that councilors considered a variety of factors and issues, not just race. The process is inherently political — one reason why judges usually exercise “extraordinary caution” before getting involved, she said, according to the Reporter.


Through the lawsuit, opponents of the map have also alleged councilors violated Open Meeting Law when convening several times at redistricting-oriented meetings last year.

Saris said Wednesday that “everyone agrees” there was at least one violation in October when several councilors met at a neighborhood meeting at the Condon School in South Boston, according to the Reporter.

Whether that factors into Saris’s decision remains to be seen, however, as the judge wondered aloud if there was precedent to pause an election because of an Open Meeting Law violation.

Doing so is “a pretty strong step,” she said.

A blocked records request

On Wednesday, councilors blocked a request from Murphy to seek a copy of the 5,816 pages of redistricting correspondence sent between all of the 13 councilors and Wayne Yeh, the policy director for Councilor Liz Breadon, according to the Boston Herald.

The request was blocked in a 6-6 vote.

Murphy had received some of the emails through attorney John Lyons, who obtained them via a records request. Those emails, Murphy said, indicate what appears to be Open Meeting Law violations in the redistricting process, the newspaper reports.

“It’s unprecedented that any council members would want to block an information request — that’s blocking the transparency of the city,” Murphy told the Herald. “The residents of the city of Boston deserve to know what’s going on in City Hall.

“When a councilor requests information to be shared, and they stall it and block it, it tells me they’re not committed to being a transparent city. They must want to hide something.”


Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who co-sponsored the new map, called Murphy’s request “political theater” because the emails she wants to access, she already can through calling the city’s public records officer.

He said he believes “her attempt to litigate a matter in the Council Chamber that is already in federal court is not an attempt to be transparent,” according to the Herald.

“It’s an attempt at political theater,” Arroyo said. “If she believes an Open Meeting Law violation occurred, she should file a complaint with the attorney general’s office, which is the appropriate venue for that complaint.”

Breadon was not at Wednesday’s council meeting.

But in an email obtained by the Herald, Breadon wrote that Murphy’s decision to publicly name a member of Breadon’s staff was “totally inappropriate and irresponsible.”

“Our staff should not be drawn into political disputes among councilors,” Breadon wrote.

Murphy said she plans to refile the request at the next council meeting.


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