Three retired judges — representing a mix of former appointees by both Democratic and Republican governors — will select the members of a nonpartisan redistricting commission, Gov. Tony Evers announced Thursday.
Evers on Thursday also announced a process for applying and selecting the nine members of the People’s Maps Commission, which aims to present nonpartisan maps to the Legislature for consideration after completion of the 2020 Census.
Evers has vowed the commission’s map-making process won’t involve lobbyists or secrecy agreements, a reference to the last redistricting process in 2011 when Republicans controlled the Legislature and governor’s office. Gerrymandered districts created by Republicans 10 years ago have granted the party a decade-long majority in both chambers.
“It would be wrong if we ended up with maps that are gerrymandered for Democrats. That’s why we’re trying to be so careful here,” Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal. “This isn’t about retribution. This is about doing the right thing.”
The panel of judges who will select the commission members will be made up of:
- Janine Geske, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 1981. Geske was appointed in 1993 by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where she served until 1998.
- Paul Higginbotham, who served on the Dane County Circuit Court from 1994-2003. He was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to the Court of Appeals, District IV, in 2003, where he served until 2017.
- Joseph Troy, who was elected to the Outagamie County Circuit Court in 1987. He resigned in 2007 after 20 years as a judge.
“This isn’t a Democratic or Republican redistricting commission, and it’s not going to be the Tony Evers redistricting commission,” Evers said in a statement. “When I say this process should be fair and impartial, I mean it.”
Advocates have praised the commission as a means to provide transparency and give courts a nonpartisan alternative if the process ends up in litigation. Other experts doubt whether the creation of the commission, which wasn’t created by the Legislature and doesn’t change state law, will have much of an effect on how the maps are drawn.
Fifty-one of the state’s 72 counties have passed resolutions in support of nonpartisan redistricting. A January 2019 Marquette Law School Poll found that more than 70% of respondents also prefer nonpartisan maps.
In order to be eligible for appointment to the commission, applicants must be at least 18 and be a Wisconsin resident. Applicants also must not have been a registered lobbyist in the last five years; a declared candidate for a local, state or federal office; a state public official; or an officer or member of a governing body of a local, state or national political party.
Evers said the commission will consist of members representing each of the state’s eight congressional districts. After members are selected, the commission will hold public hearings in each of the state’s congressional districts from September of this year through April 2021. Due to COVID-19, the public hearings will likely take place online.
Evers unveiled his plans for the commission in his January State of the State address. Republican leaders quickly dismissed the idea, with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, calling the commission unconstitutional and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, vowing GOP party leaders will reject the maps and go about their own redistricting process.
Officials on both sides of the aisle have said the 2021 district maps could play a pivotal role in which party holds a majority in the state Senate and Assembly for the next decade.
Under Wisconsin law, both congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn by the Legislature and are subject to veto by the governor every 10 years to adjust for population changes identified by the U.S. Census. In past decades, due to split-party control of state government, the maps have been resolved by state and federal courts.
Evers said the best-case scenario is that Republicans — if they hold majorities in the Legislature next year — will accept the commission’s maps.
But many expect any districts drawn next year will again have to be settled in court.
Earlier this year, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, along with former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, proposed that any legal challenge would start in the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court rather than first work its way through lower courts.
If the maps end up before the courts, Evers said transparent, nonpartisan maps could provide a baseline against which to compare the Republican-drawn maps.
“Those are the hopes, but obviously politics are politics,” Evers said. “But at minimum, the people of Wisconsin will be able to see the difference between a fair map and an unfair map, a gerrymandered map.”