MADISON -- Republican lawmakers have chosen high-priced lawyers -- likely to cost at least $600 per hour -- to fight a court order requiring them to re-draw Wisconsin's legislative district maps for next year's election.
Lawmakers took a secret ballot vote on Thursday, February 2nd without knowing how much the legal work would cost taxpayers. Democrats said it amounted to a blank check, on top of $2 million of taxpayer money already spent on previous legal defenses of the 2011 maps.
"They`re giving themselves a blank check -- this fancy, pricey, well-heeled law firm a blank check. To run up the check on the people`s pocketbooks? That`s ridiculous," said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The Assembly's Organization committee voted 5-3 to hire the lawyers. The names of lawmakers who voted for and against the proposal weren't released. The vote total from the Senate's Organization committee wasn't made public.
Few visitors to the Capitol would've known about the vote taking place Thursday afternoon. Two meeting notices on a bulletin board were among the few signs that anything was happening, but lawmakers were allowed to cast their secret ballot votes remotely.
Last year, a three-judge panel sided with a group of Democratic voters, ordering the Legislature to redraw the Assembly and Senate districts it drew in 2011.
Attorney General Brad Schimel is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to take the case. The lawyers hired Thursday will write friend of the court briefs on behalf of the Legislature.
Lawmakers chose Kirkland and Ellis, a Chicago law firm whose partners charge between $590 and $995 per hour, according to the National Law Journal. News reports suggest the firm's lawyers command more than $1,000 per hour on some cases.
When asked whether he thinks it's a good deal for taxpayers, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said, "I`m not going to get into that." Steineke quickly walked away without taking more questions.
Later, after the vote was final, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defended the vote in an emailed statement.
""We must ensure that every essential argument is heard before the court to make clear that Wisconsin has legislative maps that are constitutional," Vos said
Some Democrats said they wanted more controls put on the law firms, so costs didn't balloon.
"We think it should be time limited. There should be a dollar limit, and they should have to come back to the Legislature to justify further expenses," said Peter Barca, the Assembly's Democratic leader.
Schimel said this week he is confident the state will win on appeal, noting that he thought it unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule Wisconsin's maps unconstitutional.
"We think the law`s on our side," Schimel said Monday.