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Dave Obey at redistricting hearing

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey testifies at a July 13 legislative hearing in Madison on Republican redistricting plans.

As debate over drawing new maps for Wisconsin’s congressional and legislative districts rages on, Republican lawmakers now face criticism that their plans overstep the Legislature’s powers by requiring the state Supreme Court to create a panel to decide redistricting lawsuits.

It was one of numerous concerns about GOP redistricting maps raised Wednesday at a daylong public hearing, which also included allegations that Latinos and African-Americans were shut out of the process and complaints that local redistricting efforts around the state would be undone.

As part of redistricting plans, the Supreme Court would have to assign a panel of judges from three circuit courts to hear legal challenges, and those suing would be barred from substituting any of the judges. Appeals of the panel’s rulings would be heard by the Supreme Court without going through the appeals court.

That legislators are trying to determine the course of inevitable court challenges has raised concerns that they’re violating the state’s separation of powers.

The debate comes after repeated complaints from GOP leaders in recent months that a Dane County judge had usurped the legislative process and exceeded her authority by blocking Wisconsin’s controversial collective bargaining law.

“In the face of what they argued before the Supreme Court, that there should be a separation of powers, and when you prescribe not only where (a case) should go but then how they should conduct their internal business ... I don’t know that that’s ever been done before,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “I don’t believe legally you can direct them in that manner.”

A bill drafter from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau raised similar concerns.

“Please be aware that this draft requires the Supreme Court to take certain actions,” legislative attorney Peggy Hurley said in a July 1 note to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. “This may be in violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine and may be rejected by the Supreme Court on those grounds.”

The changes proposed in the redistricting bill would not affect a lawsuit that has already been filed because that case is in federal court.

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment on the panel. But he answered criticism that minorities had been left out of the process by saying “there was a lot of concern and certainly a lot of discussion about minority communities in Milwaukee.”

“It was definitely something that we were aware of,” he said.

But Juan Carlos Ruiz, speaking for the Latino Redistricting Committee, told lawmakers at the hearing, “this process is an embarrassment.”

Before the hearing began, longtime U.S. Rep Dave Obey joined Democratic lawmakers at a news conference slamming Republicans’ redistricting plans.

“Anybody who thinks this is legitimate redistricting is smoking something that isn’t legal,” said Obey, who served 42 years in Congress and is a veteran of several redistricting battles.

Obey called these maps a “raw manipulation of power.” Democrats also accused the GOP of rushing the maps before the unprecedented recall elections this summer could flip control of the Senate from Republicans to Democrats.

Republicans say they are simply fulfilling their duty to redraw district boundaries based on population changes. Maps must be drawn every 10 years based on census data and are always controversial because they can give an advantage to one party over another for years to come.

The Legislature is expected to vote on the maps in an extraordinary session next week.

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