Competing lawsuits filed in state, federal court as fight over Wisconsin redistricting ramps up

By: - August 23, 2021 4:27 pm
Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition by Tony Webster CC BY 2.0 A yard sign in Mellen, Wisconsin reads: "This Time Wisconsin Deserves Fair Maps," paid for by the Fair Elections Project, FairMapsWI.com. The political sign supports redistricting legislation to reform gerrymandering.

Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition by Tony Webster CC BY 2.0 A yard sign in Mellen, Wisconsin reads: “This Time Wisconsin Deserves Fair Maps,” paid for by the Fair Elections Project, FairMapsWI.com. The political sign supports redistricting legislation to reform gerrymandering.

The fight over the drawing of new legislative districts in one of the most gerrymandered states in the country ramped up Monday with two lawsuits filed, one each by liberal and conservative groups. 

Those lawsuits, filed in federal and state court, ask for judges to draw new districts ahead of the 2022 elections in anticipation of an impasse between Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican majority that controls the Legislature 

Since the current maps were drawn by Republicans following the 2010 census, the GOP has held a stranglehold on a legislative majority. Despite losing the most recent statewide elections and getting far fewer votes than their Democratic counterparts, Republicans have held large majorities in both houses since the maps were put into place in 2012. 

With Evers in office, a divided government may be unable to reach a deal on new maps and the job will be sent to the courts. 

“Since Governor Evers assumed office in January 2019, the Governor and the Legislature have disagreed on many significant policy issues that appear to fall along partisan political lines,” one of the lawsuits states. “The low likelihood of the Legislature and the Governor reaching agreement on a redistricting plan for state legislative districts in the 2020 cycle is further reflected in the current Legislature’s frequent resort to the courts to challenge executive action in lieu of seeking political compromise.” 

That lawsuit, in federal court, was filed by several liberal and voting rights groups — including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Voces de la Frontera and the League of Women Voters. Those groups are represented by the progressive legal firm Law Forward. 

That lawsuit alleges that the current districts are unconstitutional and shouldn’t be used again in 2022 if the Governor and Legislature are unable to reach a compromise. The suit states that voters in — the largely Democratic — districts that have grown since 2010 are underrepresented and the voters in the — largely Republican — districts that have shrunk are overrepresented. 

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“Because of population shifts over the past decade, the 2011 state legislative districts now give some Wisconsinites’ votes more weight than others,” the lawsuit states. “The 2020 Census rendered the state’s 2011 legislative districts unconstitutional, which harms or threatens to harm Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights unless future elections under the current districts are enjoined.”

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin and asks for a federal appellate judge, Diane Sykes, to appoint a panel to draw new maps. Sykes, a conservative, was appointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 by former President George W. Bush. Sykes previously served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

The other lawsuit, filed by conservative legal outfit, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), on behalf of a number of voters, was filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and asks for less drastic changes. 

The WILL lawsuit similarly states that the state’s congressional and legislative districts aren’t apportioned correctly due to the release of new census data, but rather than asking for a court to draw a completely new map, asks that the Supreme Court adjust the old one by “making the least number of changes to the existing maps as are necessary.”

WILL’s lawsuit also argues that state court, rather than federal court, is the proper venue for this fight. 

“The Petitioners should not be required to resort to a federal court, and only a federal court, to protect their state constitutional rights,” the suit states. 

But progressives in the state say the Supreme Court shouldn’t take up the case — arguing it’s too soon for the suit to be in the state’s highest court and isn’t the proper body. 

“The state Supreme Court should not take original jurisdiction over the WILL lawsuit,” Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which fights for fair maps across the country, said in a statement. “It’s premature, and that body is ill-suited to litigate redistricting issues. This was widely noted in the overwhelming negative response received to WILL’s original request for the state Supreme Court to pre-rig the process with incredibly biased and anti-democratic rules.”

Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The four conservatives were all elected with campaign help from Republicans and have frequently ruled in their favor.

Another lawsuit over redistricting was filed in federal court by Democratic voters last week seeking the same relief as the Law Forward suit. Earlier this spring, Republicans in the Legislature hired outside attorneys in anticipation of a legal fight over redistricting. 

As the Legislature, Gov. Evers and a variety of courts work through Wisconsin’s redistricting process, the clock is ticking. Districts for the 2022 elections must be in place by March 15 when the Wisconsin Elections Commission is required by state law to notify local election clerks of the districts.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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