Every 10 years, coinciding with the results of the U.S. Census, states conduct their redistricting processes, in which electoral district boundaries are reevaluated from congressional districts down through state House lines.

Part of that process unfolded in Duluth late Tuesday in the St. Louis County Courthouse, where a redistricting panel of judges conducted a public hearing to take citizens’ testimony.

“This participation is truly democracy in action,” said presiding Judge Louise D. Bjorkman, of the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The state of Minnesota has seen an appointed panel of judges redraw its electoral boundaries for the past four decades. It's been a reliable failsafe in the face of the state Legislature’s repeated impasses, including another one forecast for February.

“Minnesota is the least gerrymandered of any state in the nation — and it’s because our judges have done their job,” Duluth resident Debra Lynn Taylor, 63, said.

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Judge Diane B. Bratvold refers to a map while listening to testimony Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Judge Diane B. Bratvold refers to a map while listening to testimony Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Taylor is a retired scientist with the local office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She’d run “the numbers,” she told the panel of judges, and determined the 8th Congressional District, needing to add roughly 40,000-50,000 residents to its rolls, would be best served by absorbing Lake of the Woods County and the rest of Beltrami County, giving the 8th Bemidji to go with the half of Beltrami County it already encompasses. Such a district would keep the “woods-and-water” economies from the agriculture-dominant 7th District to the west.

“Do not draw a congressional district across the northern part of the state,” Taylor advised.

Lee Cutler, a younger, lifelong resident of Duluth, testified that he likes to tell people Duluth has the highest voter turnout in the country by virtue of the city's premier standing in a state with the highest voter turnout.

People trust their elections, Cutler said.

“We’ve had fair districts,” Cutler told the judges, “and because of that, people turn out (for elections).”

Like Taylor, he favored an 8th District that would take up Bemidji and Lake of the Woods County, centered in Baudette.

Spectators listen during the redistricting public hearing Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Spectators listen during the redistricting public hearing Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Hermantown City Councilor Grant Hauschild argued that, because Duluth-centric Senate District 7 needed to grow by some 5,500 people, it’d do well to locate those people by taking a larger bite of rural Duluth.

Separating Hermantown’s three precincts from Senate District 3 “would do us a disservice,” Hauschild said.

“Hermantown now has 10,000 people and it’s starting to be considered a major city in the Northland (comparable) to Virginia,” he said.

Leah Rogne concurred, saying Senate District 3 up the North Shore and along the Canadian border, was distinct from the Iron Range, for its “communities of interest."

“I hope the redistricting plan considers the special characteristics of Senate District 3,” Rogne said.

Megan Bond uses a laser pointer to illustrate her point on a map while testifying Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Megan Bond uses a laser pointer to illustrate her point on a map while testifying Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Megan Bond weighed in along those same lines, by offering that Koochiching County needed to keep its communities intact electorally and aligned to the east, citing a combined economy of wood products and recreation.

"Dividing the county into multiple districts would put increased pressure on our already (overburdened) civil servants," Bond said.

A senior cross-country runner from Esko, Nathan Barta, argued that the Cloquet, Esko, Carlton and Fond du Lac Reservation area ought to remain consolidated within any of its electoral boundaries, saying, “(We) recreate, work and compete together.”

Multiple people spoke about how they didn’t want their districts twisted into shapes, either to preserve an incumbent politician of any stripes or gain favor for any one political party.

The hearing lasted about 40 minutes, with testimony limited to 5 minutes per speaker.

Bjorkman ended by saying: “We are heartened by the civic engagement we witnessed this evening.”

She said she fully expects the Legislature to tackle the issue, but that the judiciary always prepares to back up the Legislature by conducting its parallel process.

The other judges on the panel include:

  • Judge Diane B. Bratvold, Minnesota Court of Appeals.

  • Judge Jay D. Carlson, 7th Judicial District, Detroit Lakes, Becker County.

  • Judge Juanita C. Freeman, 10th Judicial District, Stillwater, Washington County.

  • Judge Jodi L. Williamson, 3rd Judicial District, Mantorville, Dodge County.

Judge Jodi L. Williamson, left, listens as presiding Judge Louise D. Bjorkman talks to the audience near the end of the hearing Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Judge Jodi L. Williamson, left, listens as presiding Judge Louise D. Bjorkman talks to the audience near the end of the hearing Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The panel of judges was appointed by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea over the summer. After remaining hearing stops in Worthington and Rochester, there will be a Zoom hearing from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, with two-dozen people preregistered to speak.

Written statements will be taken through Oct. 29 by email at stateredistrictingpanel@courts.state.mn.us, or via mail at: Minnesota Special Redistricting Panel, c/o Christa Rutherford, Clerk of Appellate Courts, 305 Minnesota Judicial Center, 25 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.