Justices hear arguments to undo years of gerrymandered maps in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Supreme Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court listens to arguments from Assistant Attorney General Anthony Russomanno, who is representing Gov. Tony Evers, in a redistricting hearing at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (Ruthie Hauge/The Capital Times via AP, Pool)

By Pat Kreitlow

November 21, 2023

Swiss cheese legislative districts: “Wisconsin is the only state that has anything that looks anything like this.”

Pro-democracy advocates pleaded with justices for political maps more representative of Wisconsin voters on Tuesday—in their first opportunity since 2011 to seek justice in a political environment that did not include conservative control of both the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.

Attorneys for Democratic officials and progressive groups urged the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn Republican-drawn maps and draw new boundaries for the 2024 election—a move that would mean every legislative district would be on the ballot, even for lawmakers who are in the middle of their terms.

Conservatives cast doubt on the timing of the new legal challenge, coming immediately after the swearing-in of Justice Janet Protasiewicz ended 15 years of conservative court control.

Progressives focused on the constitutionality of the current maps, especially the many districts considered to be gerrymandered—a political term for maps rigged to favor one party disproportionately over another—because they do not make up a solid block of land even though the legal standard is that districts be contiguous.

Though the Wisconsin Constitution requires legislative districts “to consist of contiguous territory,” many contain sections of land that are not actually connected. The resulting map looks a bit like Swiss cheese, where some districts are dotted with small neighborhood holes assigned to different representatives.

“This shocks people across the country who look at this map,” Gaber said during oral arguments. “Wisconsin is the only state that has anything that looks anything like this.”

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley aggressively questioned the motives of the progressive plaintiffs, interrupting the first attorney to present arguments only seven seconds into his presentation. Bradley repeatedly referenced comments by Protasiewicz during her election campaign about the current maps being rigged—and Bradley noted justices had heard a case about the existing maps in 2021.

“Counsel, where were you? Where was your client two years ago?” Bradley said. “Because we’ve already been through this.”

Attorney Mark Gaber, from the Campaign Legal Center, said the case brought in September 2021 had a limited window in which to present arguments before the then-conservative court.

“I’m unaware of any authority that would say if you don’t raise a constitutional claim in 12 days, that you’re forever precluded from raising that claim in the future when you have no idea that that claim is going to arise for the particular map that is going to be put into place,” Gaber said.

Prior to 2011, legislative district lines were supposed to meet a higher standard to respect municipal and county boundaries. That ended when Republicans swept the 2010 elections and created maps that split many Democratic-majority communities into pieces in order to dilute their numbers or crammed Democratic-heavy areas into a single district.

For the past several election cycles, Democrats have prevailed in statewide races and in cumulative vote totals—yet the Republican-drawn maps have enabled GOP lawmakers to hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in the state Assembly and Senate.

Litigation is ongoing in more than dozen states over US House and state legislative districts enacted after the 2020 census.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Author

  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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