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Wisconsin High Court To Hear GOP-Backed Redistricting Case

Judge's gavel on table in office.
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Judge's gavel on table in office.

A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a redistricting lawsuit supported by the Republican-controlled Legislature, a move that comes as a Democratic-backed lawsuit progresses in federal court.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority sided with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in agreeing to take the case, with its three liberal justices dissenting. The Legislature supports having the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court take the case rather than have it play out in federal court.

A three-judge federal court panel on Tuesday said it wanted to prepare for a trial in that case to conclude by the end of January in order for the court to issue a ruling by March.

Both cases are now proceeding even though the Legislature hasn’t yet introduced a map, let alone sent one to Gov. Tony Evers to consider.

Rick Esenberg, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which brought the case, praised the ruling.

“Adopting new state legislative and congressional maps is a state responsibility,” he said. “We are pleased the Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirmed this longstanding principle and accepted jurisdiction in the event the courts have to act.”

But Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, said the ruling ignores both the law and practical considerations.

“It unfortunately looks like a politicization of the process, and that gives the people of Wisconsin even less confidence in the state high court,” he said.

No matter what the Supreme Court does, it will ultimately be reviewed in federal court, Chheda said.

Redistricting is the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political boundaries based on the latest census showing how populations have changed in neighborhoods, cities and counties since 2010. Mapmakers can create an advantage for their political party in future elections by packing opponents’ voters into a few districts or spreading them thin among multiple districts — a process known as gerrymandering.

The Legislature is in charge of drawing the lines for the state’s eight congressional districts and 132 legislative districts. Local governments also must draw new lines for local offices.

Both the Republican and Democratic lawsuits argue that the current maps for legislative and congressional boundary lines, adopted in 2011, are unconstitutional now because of population changes. The lawsuits ask that courts establish a plan to draw new lines in the likely event that the GOP-controlled Legislature and Evers, a Democrat, don’t agree on new maps.

Republicans think their chances are best in the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court Democrats are putting their hopes in federal court, arguing that makes more sense because that’s where past redistricting disputes under divided governments in 1982, 1992 and 2002 were resolved.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed with WILL and said state courts have a role to play.

“This court has long deemed redistricting challenges a proper subject for the court’s exercise of original jurisdiction,” the majority wrote.

The lawsuit asked the Supreme Court to put the case on hold after agreeing to take it, pending action by the Legislature and governor. It asked the court to draw a new map based on the current one if the Legislature and governor fail to reach an agreement.

The Supreme Court declined to put the case on hold. It asked the Legislature and all other parties to tell it by Oct. 6 when a new redistricting plan must be in place. It declined to declare the current maps unconstitutional, saying the record was inadequate for such a determination.

The date by which redistricting must be completed is at issue in the federal lawsuit, with the state elections commission saying it needs to know the new boundaries by March 1 in order for clerks to prepare for the August primary. Nomination papers can be circulated starting April 15. The Legislature says that date can be pushed back.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and fellow conservative justices Brian Hagedorn, Rebecca Bradley and Patience Roggensack agreed to take the case, while liberal justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky objected.

Dallet, writing for the dissent, said the Supreme Court may have a role to play after the Legislature does its job, “but now is not the time.”

“The majority’s order prematurely injects the court into the political process, risks undermining the court’s independence, and circumvents the statutory process for addressing redistricting challenges,” Dallet wrote.

The current maps were drawn by Republicans and enacted by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. Republicans who strengthened their legislative majorities under the maps want to use them as the starting point for redistricting this year.

The federal lawsuit combines a pair of cases first brought by the attorney leading the Democratic Party’s legal fight against new voting restrictions and by Democratic-supported groups including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, Voces de la Frontera and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

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