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High court ruling likely ends Wisconsin redistricting case

Tony Evers

MADISON, Wis. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that federal courts have no place in policing political district boundaries means a challenge to Republican-drawn legislative boundaries in Wisconsin is likely over, leaving Democrats with little hope of gaining ground heading into the 2020 elections.

Democratic voters filed a federal lawsuit in Madison in 2015 alleging boundaries Republicans drew in 2011 unfairly diluted Democrats’ voting power. They argued Republicans spread Democrats across conservative districts and packed them into left-leaning districts.

A trial was set for July. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering claims don’t belong in federal court. The decision came as the court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.

Doug Poland, an attorney for the Democratic voters in the Wisconsin case, said lawyers for Republican legislators asked him after the ruling if he would be willing to drop the lawsuit. He didn’t say what he planned to recommend his clients do, but noted the Wisconsin case is very similar to North Carolina’s.

“The (U.S. Supreme Court) opinion really does not leave a path forward for our lawsuit to be adjudicated in federal court,” Poland said. “It was a very disappointing ruling for us.”

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized the Wisconsin lawsuit, says it’s likely that Wisconsin’s maps will now have to be addressed via the Legislature.

“People now know that partisan gerrymandering exists, and they hate it,” Chheda said. “So our work continues.”

The Legislature’s Republican leaders, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a joint statement saying they hope the decision ends the Wisconsin lawsuit. They say they plan to seek recovery of costs and fees associated with the case, calling it a distraction and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“The Supreme Court has now confirmed what we have said all along — that it was not a matter for the federal courts to second guess the Legislature on these issues,” they said.

Wisconsin legislators redraw district boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes per the U.S. Census. Republicans control both legislative houses in Wisconsin and they favor the current system, which they’ll control if they maintain their majorities in 2020.

Democratic legislators introduced a bill last week that would create a commission within the Legislative Reference Bureau to draw the boundaries. Districts could not be drawn to favor a political party or incumbent and the commission couldn’t use voters’ political affiliations, previous election results or demographic information to make the maps.

“Because we can no longer trust either court to do what is best for the people with respect to ending political gerrymandering by either party, it is important now more than ever to continue the fight to pass non-partisan redistricting in Wisconsin,” the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Dave Hansen, said in a statement Thursday.

The measure has almost no chance of passage since Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included provisions in the state budget calling for creating a nonpartisan redistricting process but Republicans who control the Legislature’s finance committee stripped the proposal out of the spending plan this spring.

Democrats could turn to state courts, but any challenges would almost certainly end up at the state Supreme Court, likely another dead end since conservatives control the court. Poland said he hasn’t studied the Wisconsin Constitution to determine whether it provides any basis for challenging politically gerrymandered districts, and such a lawsuit would be unprecedented at the state level and an uphill fight.

Democrats’ best option for changing the boundaries may be to somehow recapture the majority in both the Senate and Assembly in the 2020 elections, a herculean task given the GOP boundaries will still be in play then and Republicans will go into the elections with an overwhelming 27-member majority in the Assembly.

If Republicans maintain complete control of the Legislature Evers would be able to block any new boundaries the GOP draws in 2021. If the two sides don’t agree on the new boundaries they could ask a judge to draw the maps for them. Republicans will try to get that fight before the state Supreme Court. Democrats will likely try to get the case heard in federal court.

Evers issued a statement Thursday calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling “devastating for our democracy” and promising to veto any gerrymandered maps that land on his desk.

“The people should get to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” the governor said.

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