The U.S. Supreme Court as seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The U.S. Supreme Court as seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Republicans called it racial gerrymandering. State attorney general says it’s “back to the drawing board,” with less than a month until candidates for Legislature can start to file.

Conservative justices on the US Supreme Court tossed out new legislative maps for Wisconsin on Wednesday, siding with Republicans who said too many Black-majority districts were being formed by the boundaries submitted by Gov. Tony Evers and approved by the state Supreme Court.

The ruling—which does not affect the new maps for congressional districts—throws a wrench into an already-contentious and delayed process just weeks ahead of the April 15 date when candidates can begin circulating nomination petitions to get on the fall ballot.

The justices said the state Supreme Court had “committed legal error in its application of decisions of this Court regarding the relationship between the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and” the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 

The state court failed to consider whether a “race-neutral alternative that did not add a seventh majority-black district would deny black voters equal political opportunity,” the Supreme Court said. 

They pointed toward other map submissions the state’s high court could choose from beyond Evers’ maps as possible alternatives, even though the state justices had made clear Evers’ proposal best matched the standards they had set in November.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, supported by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote a scathing dissent, saying the conservative justices had taken “unprecedented” action to overturn a state’s map, something normally done only “for [state] decisions in violation of settled law.” In this case, there is no claim by minority groups that the new maps violated the Equal Protection Clause or the Voting Rights Act. Rather, Republicans claimed that because the Evers’ maps create seven districts with a Black majority rather than six districts with even larger Black majorities, the maps somehow run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause.

“This Court’s intervention today is not only extraordinary but also unnecessary,” Sotomayor wrote.

The state Supreme Court took on the job of drawing new districts for the Legislature last year after state Republicans requested they step in. For decades, federal courts have had jurisdiction over redistricting cases in Wisconsin, but Wisconsin Republicans assumed a conservative-majority court would look more favorably upon their maps, which were based in a significant gerrymander in 2011 that made radical changes to boundaries and locked in large Republican majorities even when Democrats won most statewide elections.

Wisconsin’s current maps are regularly referenced as the most gerrymandered in the country. In a state where presidential election results are razor thin and Democrats have won in every statewide election since 2018, the Republican-drawn maps of 2011 limited Democrats to winning just 38% of Assembly and state Senate races in 2020.

At first, the state justices gave Republicans a victory, setting a standard that the new maps must take a “least changes” approach to the 2011 maps drawn by Republican legislators. But conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn shocked Republicans and his conservative colleagues by siding with progressives in a ruling stating that Evers’ map made the least changes compared to what was submitted by Republicans and other interested parties.

Republicans immediately appealed to the US Supreme Court, resulting in Wednesday’s ruling which was blasted by advocates for non-partisan fair maps.

Gov. Tony Evers released a statement that said, “If we have to go back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court—who have already called our maps ‘superior to every other proposal’—to demonstrate again that these maps are better and fairer than the maps we have now, then that’s exactly what we’ll do. I will not stop fighting for better, fairer maps for the people of this state who shouldn’t have to wait any longer than they already have to ensure their voices are heard.”

“The politicization of our courts is rotting our democracy through and through,” said Wisconsin Fair Elections Project Director Sachin Chheda. “After refusing to consider VRA claims in other states because ‘it’s too close to the election,’ the US Supreme Court today violated its own precedent and any measure of common sense. Those justices claim federal courts shouldn’t interfere with states’ ability to manage elections, but are now throwing Wisconsin’s legislative elections into chaos only three weeks before signature gathering is supposed to start.”

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a Democratic candidate for US Senate and a former state legislator, called the ruling “a massive overstep by our federal judiciary and I condemn the Republican-controlled Supreme Court for continuing to chip away at the Voting Rights Act.” 

State Attorney General Josh Kaul, who defended Evers, called the Supreme Court’s ruling “shocking” and consistent with “increasing activism” from the conservative majority on the court.

“It’s now created massive uncertainty going forward,” Kaul, a Democrat, said. “We’re going back to the drawing board on this and I think there’s going to be a lot of litigation ahead.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story—which was edited to add reaction from Gov. Evers.