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Wisconsin Supreme Court takes redistricting lawsuit filed by conservatives

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Supreme Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to accept a redistricting case filed by conservatives just a day after a federal court established a timeline for a trial in another case challenging Wisconsin’s political maps brought by Democrats.

The case the Supreme Court accepted was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in August and, like the Democratic lawsuit, argues the state’s current political maps, adopted in 2011, are unconstitutional and courts should establish a plan to draw new lines because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will not be able to agree. WILL is representing four Wisconsin voters who live in legislative districts the law firm believes are malapportioned, leading to their votes being diluted.

The Legislature hasn’t passed a set of new Assembly, Senate and congressional maps, nor has it established a timeline for doing so.

The 4-3 ruling by the court’s conservatives means that there are two simultaneous lawsuits challenging Wisconsin’s political maps, one consolidated lawsuit brought by Democrats in federal court, and another brought by conservatives in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, a panel of judges in the redistricting case brought by Democrats and activist groups set a timeline for a potential trial in order to issue a ruling by March 1, 2022, ahead of the circulation of nomination papers for the 2022 primary elections, though the court said it’s open to different timeline suggestions. The Legislature has argued that the March 1 deadline can be pushed back.

The federal lawsuit is being overseen by a panel of three judges, two appointees of former President Barack Obama and one of former President Donald Trump. Conservatives maintain a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

If Evers and the Legislature can’t agree on a set of maps, Republicans are banking on the state Supreme Court to draw maps instead, while Democrats want the federal courts to do so.

In accepting the case, the state Supreme Court majority said redistricting lawsuits clearly belong in state courts.

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

Every 10 years, the Legislature is tasked with drawing Wisconsin’s new congressional and legislative voting district lines to be used for the next 10 years. The lines are based off of census data that shows population changes in neighborhoods, cities and counties since 2010.

Both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Republicans, but not by a large enough margin to overcome Evers’ veto. If they can’t agree on maps, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, federal courts or both could step in to ensure new maps are in place to be used for the 2022 primary and general elections.

If the Legislature and governor can’t agree on new maps, the WILL lawsuit asks the court make “the least number of changes to the existing maps as are necessary.”

Oct. 6 deadline

In its ruling, the court asked the parties in the case to file briefs by Oct. 6 answering the question of when a new redistricting plan must be in place, and why. During a hearing on Tuesday in the federal case brought by Democrats, a panel of judges indicated it wants political maps in place by March 1.

March 15 is the statutory deadline for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to notify county clerks of which offices will be voted on in the November 2022 election and where information on district boundaries can be found.

The court on Tuesday declined to declare at the outset that new political maps are needed immediately, noting an inadequate record to make such a ruling. The court also declined to pause proceedings in the case.

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

Timing questioned

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, said absent the governor and Legislature agreeing on a set of new political maps, the federal court is a better jurisdiction for redistricting cases.

“The reality is that whatever happens in state court still will almost certainly need to be reviewed in federal court, and this exponentially increases costs for the taxpayers, who will be paying for duplicative litigation in multiple venues,” Chheda said in a statement. “And this surely does not speed up the process.”

In her dissent, joined by liberal justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky, Justice Rebecca Dallet said now is not the time for the state Supreme Court to intervene in the redistricting process.

She said 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.”

Looking back a decade later, 10 stories about Act 10

The most seismic political story of the last decade in Wisconsin began on Feb. 7, 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker informed a gathering of cabinet members of plans to unilaterally roll back the power of public sector unions in the state. He "dropped the bomb," as Walker would describe it afterward, four days later.

The audacious proposal, to be known forever after as Act 10, required public employees to pay more for pension and health insurance benefits, but also banned most subjects of collective bargaining and placed obstacles to maintaining union membership.

The proposal laid bare the state's deep, at times intensely personal, political divisions as tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol. The month-long, round-the-clock occupation drew international attention, but failed to stop the bill.

A decade later, the aftershocks of one of the biggest political earthquakes in Wisconsin history continue to be felt. Taxes have been held in check, and state finances have improved. But public unions are vastly diminished and the state is more politically divided than ever.

Here are 10 stories from people who experienced the historic events firsthand.

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Former Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Peter Barca tried to slow down passage of the legislation to force a compromise.

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A decade later, former Gov. Scott Walker said he views Act 10 as one of the best things he's done for the state.

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Susan Cohen wondered if the Capitol dome would come crumbling down from the cacophonous vibrations during the Act 10 protests.

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Dale Schultz believes the state's ability to solve people's problems was greatly diminished by Act 10.

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Longtime Madison Teachers Inc. leader John Matthews explains why collective bargaining still matters.

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Charles Tubbs said his mission was communicating with protesters and voluntary compliance.

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During the peak of the Act 10 protests, Ian's Pizza was delivering 1,200 pizzas a day to protesters. 

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Sen. Joan Ballweg saw the recall elections that resulted from Act 10 as the people getting a chance to have their say.

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Michele Ritt remembered her son Josef Rademacher wearing a hole in the soles of his snow boots during the protests.

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Jason Stein was amazed to find himself in the midst of the No. 2 story on the New York Times home page.


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Related to this story

For Republicans, the GOP proposal for the state's legislative and congressional boundaries aligns with plans to retain the core of existing districts, but for Democrats and those seeking nonpartisan maps, the offering is just more of the same.

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