Two lawsuits make the same core argument, but ask for starkly different solutions from different jurists—the conservative-led state Supreme Court or a federal court.
Two new lawsuits filed Monday—one by a coalition of liberal groups, one by a prolific conservative law firm—argue that Wisconsin’s current electoral maps are unconstitutional in light of the new US census data. Each takes a different tack on who should oversee the next round of maps, depending on political preferences and predicted outcomes.
The suits’ arguments mirror that of one filed earlier this month by a prominent Democratic lawyer: The maps no longer align with legal requirements after new population data was released. Because of population changes revealed by the census, the suits argue, political districts no longer have a roughly equal number of people, which is a requirement in redistricting law.
Under state law, the Legislature is charged with drawing and passing new district boundaries for the Assembly, state Senate, and Congress every 10 years when census data is released. The governor can then approve or veto the maps. If the two parties cannot come to an agreement, the courts must step in. That happened in 1981, 1991, and 2001, when federal courts drew the final maps.
But in 2011, Republicans controlled the Legislature and governorship, and they approved maps that were drawn in such a way to give themselves a massive advantage in the Assembly and Senate by drawing odd-shaped district boundaries, a process known as gerrymandering.
Where the two new lawsuits diverge is in what court they were filed. The different venues could result in wildly different outcomes due to the partisan leanings of individual judges.
The liberal suit, filed by progressive group Law Forward on behalf of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Voces de la Frontera, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin—three groups that focus heavily on voting rights and voter participation.
Law Forward filed its suit in the left-leaning US District Court for Wisconsin’s Western District. The filing explicitly takes a stand against gerrymandering.
“We have experienced the stakes of redistricting first-hand in Wisconsin, ever since the Legislature gerrymandered districts in 2011 to entrench the control of one political party for an entire decade,” said Law Forward Litigation Director Doug Poland in a statement. “All Wisconsin voters deserve to have their voices reflected fairly in our state government.”
The conservative suit, from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), was filed directly with the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court. It asks the justices to block the other lawsuits to allow Gov. Tony Evers and the Legislature to work on new maps, and, if required, draw new maps with the least changes possible, potentially locking in the Republican gerrymander for another decade.
“Adopting new legislative maps is a state responsibility,” WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said in a statement. “If the Legislature and governor cannot agree, it is entirely appropriate—even necessary—for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a branch of state government, to pass a judicial apportionment plan to adopt constitutional maps.”
All three lawsuits—the conservative groups’, the voting rights groups’, and the Democratic Party groups’—will have to wait for the success or failure of the legally prescribed next step in redistricting, which would be an agreement on maps between the Legislature and Evers in the coming months.