The Northfield League has always been vigilant in defending democratic values locally. When the League noticed problems with the 2002 redistricting plan for Rice County, they approached a local lawyer, Phil Zrimsek, for help. Suspecting that the new, gerrymandered plan would unfairly dilute Northfield’s political representation, the Northfield League filed a lawsuit against the Rice County Board of Commissioners, with support from the Northfield community.
The Northfield League had been following the issue of redistricting closely since 2001.
“April 14th 2001 – Heather Robins presents redistricting as a central issue: ‘No other group is likely to pick up issue…should study the effects and implications of current districts in determining the redrawing of lines in 2002’ Elaine Thurston” – Northfield League of Women Voters’ meeting minutes 2000-2001 and 2001-2002
Phil Zrimsek, the lawyer representing the League in the redistricting case, explains the suspected gerrymandering by the Rice County Board of Commissioners. The redistricting plan the Board adopted was seen by the Northfield League as the Faribault commissioners’ attempt to reinforce their advantage in the already imbalanced dynamics of the Rice County Board of Commissioners by marginalizing Northfield and diluting the voice of Northfield voters.
“There had always been, on contentious issues, a 3-2 split on the votes from the commissioners. And always there had been two commissioner districts that had been dominated by Faribault and two by Northfield… And then there was the rural district, who in essence would be a tiebreaker, but they’d always sided with the Faribault commissioners. And even though we don’t use Republicans and Democrats in county races, it would probably help you think about it as always the Faribault commissioners and the rural commissioner were conservative, for sure, and the dedicated Northfield commissioner was very liberal, and then the outlying Northfield plus the Bridgewater township and Dundas one would usually side with the Northfield commissioner. It was always a 3-2 vote… But what they did after the 2000 census is basically they took [the Southern] ward from Northfield… and Dundas and Bridgewater, and they combined it with Faribault… Northfield then would have one commissioner vote, and Faribault would have three votes because they combined the Faribault wards with the rural’s. Then it made us a very supermajority 4-1 commissioner district… so they were really diluting any power that Northfield had whatsoever. You already had the 3-2, you’d always win every vote anyway, why are you going to these lengths, you know, to make it a 4-1 type of thing? I never really figured that out.” – Phil Zrimsek, interviewed by Win Wen Ooi and Willie Powers, February 16th, 2019.
Members of the Northfield League decided to bring forward the lawsuit, challenging the redistricting plan that they believed would threaten the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.”
“Judy Stoutland makes a motion to authorize the Board to spend $3000 on legal challenge to Rice County Redistricting. Lawsuit in the name of Hilary Ziols. – April 20th, 2002
$3000 budget for litigation exhausted. Judge Gerald Ring orders the Board of Commissioners to adopt a new plan. The Board votes 3-2 to appeal the decision. More funds are needed to support continued litigation – August 22, 2002
Phil Zrimsek sets $2000 cap on expenses for appeals, county must go through normal appeals process – September 19, 2002.” – Northfield League of Women Voters’ meeting minutes 2002-2003
Without the financial contribution from the League members or the support from Zrimsek, the legal challenge would have faced much greater barriers to success. The lawsuit was a community effort made possible by a strong common belief in voters’ rights.
“[The League] had to raise money from their members to fund this lawsuit. You can imagine if they had to go up to the cities and engage a law firm that was perhaps more experienced with election issues, their lawsuit would have run into 50,000 dollars and you know we did it for over the course of two and a half years. I have no idea what we actually charged but I know we gave them a significant break. We were able to work with them to challenge something that needed to be challenged, but could be done within the framework of a small organization.” – Phil Zrimsek, interviewed by Win Wen Ooi and Willie Powers, February 16th, 2019.
Despite a drawn-out battle within and without the courtroom, Ziols v. The Board of County Commissioners went on to become an important case not only for Northfield, but statewide. The redistricting case was notable for the refusal of the three majority members of the Rice County Board of Commissioners to give up their undemocratic redistricting plan, even when ordered to do so by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Finally, the County Board of Commissioners was stripped of their ability to carry-out redistricting, and the League was able to ensure the voting rights of all Rice County residents.
Local attorney Phil Zrimsek represented Hilary Ziols and the League throughout their case. This was Zrimsek’s first solo case, but it soon became one of the most significant cases of his career.
“My involvement with the League was non-existent until I was approached in 2002 to look at and rectify the problem. I was a younger lawyer at that point; I was in my mid-30s…So [my partner] John and I met with the plaintiff in the case whose name was Hillary Ziols who was the President, I believe, of the League of Women Voters at the time. We talked to her and said, for sure, we will take a look at the situation and decide if there is anything that we can do. John just handed the case off to me so I handled it for the next two years on my own. Ultimately we decided, yeah, what the heck. Let’s give this a shot.” —Phil Zrimsek, interviewed by Win Wen Ooi and Willie Powers, February 16th, 2019.
After losing at the local level, the County Board and their attorney decided to appeal the court’s decision. The Minnesota Court of Appeals found on May 20, 2003, that the Rice County Board of Commissioners were not justified in selecting a gerrymandered redistricting policy.
“The equal population requirement in the statute has a powerful legal basis; it is ultimately based on the right to vote, which is protected under the constitution ‘against dilution or debasement’”— “Decision,” The Catalyst, June 2003
Listen to Attorney Phil Zrimsek describe the implications of the Court of Appeals decision.
On November 4, 2003, the Rice County Board of Commissioners approved the same redistricting plan that had been struck down by the court of appeals earlier that year, in defiance of the court’s order. After the Board of Commissioners refused to follow the Court of Appeal’s order, the court established the Rice County Redistricting Committee to oversee the redistricting process and create fair redistricting proposals. Read and listen to Northfield League President Hilary Ziols’ account of the case and its aftermath.
Listen to a reading of part of Ziol’s article by Jo Bartkovich.
Faribault Community Reaction
Through the redistricting lawsuit, a new, fairer redistricting plan was finally adopted. Although the new redistricting made nearly equal in population possible, at the same time, there could be none from Faribault, with a one-third population in the Rice County, on the Board of Commissioners. The Northfield League’s challenge to the Board of Commissioners’ redistricting plan upset some in Faribault.
The author of this article claims that although the reconsidered redistricting lessened the possibility of commissioners from Faribault, as long as the weight of each person’s vote is regarded as equal, the precise redistricting plan does not matter to people in Faribault.
This article mentions that some people, especially from Faribault, are upset about the adopted new redistricting plan since there would be none on the Board of Commissioners from Faribault although one-third people in the county are living in Faribault.
The Ziols v. Rice County Board of Commissioners lawsuit was a significant case in the field of Minnesota redistricting caselaw. Its legacy has continued through references to the case in redistricting cases since the ruling. The League’s decision to pursue the case is representative of its dedication to voter rights, one of the pillars of the League’s mission. The League’s success in solving this partisan issue as a nonpartisan organization reaffirms the value of nonpartisan organizations as catalysts for change in our increasingly partisan society.
The district court found that the board’s adoption of Plan XI was not sufficiently diligent and was an abuse of discretion under Minn. Stat. § 375.025. It determined, as did the district court in Ziols, that the board did not provide any specifics that would explain why it chose a plan with a greater population deviation than others before the board. While the Ziols court clarified that the board “was not required to pick the plan with the lowest population deviation from the ideal, it must explicitly address all of the statutory factors, particularly equal population” to justify its choice. Ziols, 661 N.W.2d at 289. […]
The district court order declaring Plan XI to be null and void and appointing a redistricting commission was correctly determined by application of the state’s county-redistricting statute. The court did not err in its conclusion that the board had not articulated its basis for choosing Plan XI over other proffered plans that provided for districts that were more nearly equal in population than the districts in Plan XI.
Excerpts from Fay v. St Louis County Board Of Commissioners, 2004.
The Northfield League of Women Voters’ choice to fight the proposed Rice County redistricting plan had a ripple effect on other redistricting cases in Minnesota. In 2004, one year after their ruling in Ziols, the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided Fay v. St Louis County Board Of Commissioners, a challenge to a redistricting plan that unequally distributed the two hundred thousand voters in Duluth’s St. Louis County. Based on the precedent set in Ziols, the Court decided that the Board of Commissioners had violated Minnesota’s county-redistricting statute by failing to justify their selection of a redistricting plan with significantly higher population deviances than others.
“One of the things that I noted was that there seemed to be two key cases that were cited in the opinions for Minnesota. One was from 1953, I believe, and one was from 1964. and now there is our case, Ziols. My point is that this has long-reaching – I mean we only have censuses every 10 years, and so we are only gonna have court cases every 10 years of that. And so, I mean, this was a case that – well, not, perhaps, the most important case I have ever done for an individual, you know, where people’s lives are impacted, this is for sure the case I’d had that will have the most impact over time. I mean, it could still be cited 60 years from now, you know, long after I’m dead. And, so, that’s a pretty cool thing to have done, I think. I also noted that our case was cited at least a half dozen times in um, a 2004 case in St. Louis County where Duluth is. The commissioners up there did exactly the same thing as Rice County did, where they just completely ignored the law about how we need to tighten up your district’s population wise as close as possible, and if not you are going to have a really really good reason why not. And their commissioners were told, you know, you have follow the law, and they said no, we can do it as long as we’re within 10% deviation we can do whatever we want. They were just slapped down mercilessly and our case was cited in that case. I think we did some good.”
Phil Zrimsek, interviewed by Win Wen Ooi and Willie Powers, February 16, 2019.
Zrimsek’s description of the precedent that Ziols v. Rice County Board Of Commissioners set for Minnesota gerrymandering cases highlights both the importance of this case in Minnesota legal history and the League’s ability to facilitate change as a nonpartisan organization with stakes in political issues, including the League’s core issues, like protecting voter rights.
“But they [the League of Women Voters] decided, you know, that this is a voter’s right issue, it’s not necessarily – while I told you that, you know, the underlying thing is like Faribault blatantly trying to screw Northfield, but still there is a very very valid principle at the heart of this and that is, you know, one person one vote. The other thing is now the state Senate has all this stuff, so their guidelines for counties going forward cites our case as like, okay guys, you guys need to pay attention to all aspects of the rules in setting districts, and not just, you know, setting it how you want it to be for political purposes.”
Phil Zrimsek, interviewed by Win Wen Ooi and Willie Powers, February 16, 2019.
The redistricting lawsuit represents one of the League’s core values in action: protecting people’s right to vote, which can also include the significance of a vote relative to others (Northfield League of Women Voters). Zrimsek’s memory of the League’s suit as a defense of voter rights, and the connection he draws to modern issues, reaffirms that redistricting remains a major national issue.
One [function of the League] is making sure that everyone can vote and making sure that it’s equal. Voter services is what we call it–just making sure that everyone can vote and that it’s easy and they’re well-informed and all of that.
Right now, I think the most important role of the League is to make sure that everybody has the right to vote, to work on those issues.
Mary Steen, interviewed by Carrie Kisicki and Shira Julie, February 2019.
Northfield League member and former Northfield League president Mary Steen discusses the present-day role of the League in defending voters’ rights. Voter services continues to be a central part of the Northfield League’s mission today.