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U.S. Supreme Court Set to Hear Wisconsin Gerrymandering Case

Morning light shines outside The United States Supreme Court building.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme is expected to take up a Wisconsin case that could have national implications.

Justices will hear arguments on the controversial political maps that Republican lawmakers drafted in 2011, after the most recent census. Democrats and liberal groups say the maps are unconstitutional, because the new boundaries give the GOP a big advantage in elections.

It took months for Republicans in the Legislature, with the help of attorneys they hired, to redraw the maps in 2011. At issue are the political boundaries for the state's Assembly and Senate districts. A legislative aide to Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald presented the new maps at a public hearing that summer.

Tad Ottman acknowledged the maps were significantly different from the previous versions, in some cases. But he insisted there was a logic to them. “This plan connects the cities of Kenosha and Racine in one Senate district, and then takes the rural parts of both of those counties and puts them into a separate Senate district."

Map of Wisconsin Assembly Districts.

Ottman said legislators followed the law when drawing up the maps, making certain the new districts would be equally populated and sensitive to minority concerns. But at that same hearing, Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch of northern Wisconsin blasted the Republican boundaries. He called the legislation to put the maps into place "blatantly partisan."

“It disenfranchises thousands of citizens, divides communities of interests and is an insult to the citizens of Wisconsin,” Jauch said.

The Legislature went on to approve the maps on a party line vote -- then came the legal challenges. In 2012, a panel made up of three federal judges ordered lawmakers to redraw two Assembly districts on the south side of Milwaukee – after nearly two dozen voters sued, alleging the maps violated the voting rights of Latinos.

Then, a handful of Democratic voters sued the state, challenging the reconfiguration of all 99 Assembly districts. A panel of three federal judges threw out the maps last year – ruling they amounted to an “unconstitutional political gerrymander.”

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel challenged that ruling, which is how the case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed an amicus brief in the case. He defends the redrawn boundaries. “If you look at the Assembly maps, they are contiguous, they are compact, they do not depart from traditional redistricting principles, they don’t look strange at all,” Esenberg says.

The court will ultimately decide whether politics played too heavy a role in the redistricting -- and whether Democratic voters were packed into some districts, limiting the number of seats Democratic candidates could carry in the Assembly.

NPR's Ailsa Chang recently visited Wisconsin to report on the state's redistricting case. Chang told WUWM's Ann-Elise Henzl about the trip.

Read Ailsa Chang's Story: Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines

Ruth Greenwood is an attorney for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, based in Washington – it’s representing the plaintiffs in the proceedings. She calls Wisconsin's redistricting process in 2011, calculated, and says Republicans went out of their way to ensure the new maps would give the party an advantage.

“Why did the state have spreadsheet after spreadsheet where they had predicted out exactly how every district would go, not just in how they thought the election would happen in 2012, but across a whole range of possible outcomes,” she asks.

Greenwood says whatever the court decides, Wisconsin’s case could dictate the future of U.S. elections. That’s why a lot of people will be watching. UW-Madison Political Scientist Barry Burden says in 2020 when states are again redrawing their political boundaries, they likely would use the ruling in Wisconsin as the blueprint.

“If the justices decide to affirm the lower court’s decision, then that will force states to change how they draw districts. If on the other hand the court allows this map to go forward, they’re essentially saying that any map can go forward and there really are no limits on partisanship when it comes to drawing district lines,” Burden says.

Burden says after oral arguments, the court will issue a written ruling. That could take months, as the court has until June of 2018, when its term expires, to make a decision. Some state lawmakers have said that if the maps have to be redrawn, they hope it could be done by the 2018 fall elections.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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