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Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects request to directly hear redistricting lawsuits

Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects request to directly hear redistricting lawsuits

Wisconsin Supreme Court entrance in Capitol Building (copy)

The entrance to the Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers in the state Capitol. 

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court Friday rejected a request from a conservative law firm seeking to ensure any lawsuits over redistricting would be sent directly to the state's justices rather than federal court. 

The proposed rule change, brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, would've given the court's conservative majority more power in the upcoming process to redraw legislative district boundaries. 

But the court ultimately voted to reject the petition, noting in the order that the procedures WILL and Jensen proposed "are unlikely to materially aid this court's consideration of an as yet undefined future redistricting challenge."

Cap Times Talk: How will redistricting play out in Wisconsin?

Still, the justices in their order cautioned their decision shouldn't be taken as predictive of how the court would respond to a request to review a lower court's redistricting decision or a request to assume original jurisdiction over a future case. 

"It remains well-settled that redistricting challenges often merit this court's exercise of its original jurisdiction," the order states. 

Fair Elections Project director Sachin Chheda urged the Legislature to "commit to an open, honest, transparent, and fair process to draw and approve district maps" in light of the court's ruling. 

"The State Supreme Court has made the right decision in denying the effort to rig the map-drawing process through a ridiculously partisan proposed rule," he added. 

WILL first filed a petition last summer asking for a new procedure to handle redistricting cases. Under the proposal, such lawsuits could be filed as soon as the federal Census data officials need to redraw lines is released in the coming months. 

But the court's conservative chief justice, Pat Roggensack, seemed skeptical of WILL's effort during a hearing on the proposal in January. Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority.

Federal courts have largely handled suits concerning redistricting.

Generally in Wisconsin, it's been left to the courts in recent decades to redraw the maps. But a decade ago, under complete Republican control, the lines adopted under former Gov. Scott Walker also ended up in court, after they were challenged as an illegal partisan gerrymander. But the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case over Democrats' arguments that the lines were drawn to boost Republicans.

This time around, the bill Republicans introduce to re-draw the boundaries will all but certainly be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Without the two-thirds majority necessary to override it among GOP lawmakers in both chambers, the issue will likely end up in court.

Also playing a role this time is the newly created People's Maps Commission, a redistricting panel formed by Evers that will draw its own lines, thereby potentially influencing the process. The body's maps could ultimately be removed by the Legislature or ignored in lieu of a different, likely Republican-backed proposal to redraw the lines. Still, members' efforts could come into play during the legal process as judges work to finalize the districts.

Still, the process is a ways off. While the federal Census Bureau in March announced states may be able to get redistricting data in an outdated format in August, weeks earlier than the end-of-September date officials previously announced, the period is still five months past the March 31 legal deadline to release the information. The bureau previously released initial results from the decennial survey that showed Wisconsin is retaining its eight House seats. 

Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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