Legislative maps case; Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear arguments

WEST ALLIS, Wis. - The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday on a case challenging the current legislative maps.

This case doesn't deal with partisan gerrymandering; it won't look at whether the maps can favor one political party.

What’s on the docket on Tuesday is the idea of "islands," or small areas disconnected from the rest of their legislative districts.

<div>This "island" of West Allis surrounded by Greenfield is also reflected in the legislative maps.</div>
This "island" of West Allis surrounded by Greenfield is also reflected in the legislative maps.

Those challenging the maps say they violate the Wisconsin Constitution that districts be of "contiguous territory."

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"Fifty five of the Assembly districts don’t even consist of contiguous territory. There are little bits and pieces of the districts in surrounding districts," said Mark Gaber with the Campaign Legal Center. "And that just is the most basic requirement of the state constitution."

Conservatives countered by pointing out that the island have been part of approved Wisconsin legislative maps for decades and that these islands are due to municipalities having them, so the legislative maps keep the municipalities together, even if parts of the municipality are surrounded by another municipality.

Some of the debate centers on what is meant by the constitution's word "contiguous"?

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, wrote in a brief: "This Court, itself, relied on a similar definition…holding that ‘contiguous’ does not always mean that the lands must be touching…this Court noted that ‘contiguous’ was defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition, p. 391, to mean ‘in close proximity,’ and ‘near, though not in contact,’ as well as ‘neighboring,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘touching.’

On the other hand, the groups fighting the current maps stated in their brief: "…those districts include multiple tracts of land that do not touch at all; they are not in actual, physical contact, which is not only the dictionary definition of ‘contiguous’ but was recognized by this Court as a requirement more than 130 years ago. This Court has never held that such districts satisfy the Constitution’s express contiguity requirement."

Law Forward, a liberal Wisconsin law firm, joined other groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and the Election Law Clinic at Harvard, to ask the court to rule the maps are unconstitutional. They also requested the justices rule that all state senators, even those whose seats aren't up for reelection until 2026, be up for reelection under new maps in 2024.

Liberals filed their suit just as soon as the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to liberal control with the swearing in of Justice Janet Protasiewicz. During the campaign, she called the state's legislative maps "rigged" and received campaign support from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

This case could start the process of a major change for Wisconsin politics.

Wisconsin's recent presidential elections have been decided by less than one percentage point. Republicans currently hold a supermajority of the state Senate and are two seats away from it in the Assembly.

"We are in a new political era, a new political environment in Wisconsin," said Alex Ignatowski with the Institute for Reforming Government. "This court case could upend essentially what’s been a Republican majority, a solid Republican majority, for the last decade or so."

The legislature writes laws on topics like abortion, guns and schools. It also decides how to spend your tax money. Legislative maps decide what district a voter is in and which candidates represent a person at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison.

"Republicans have been able to cut taxes, they’ve been able to increase school choice," Ignatowski said. "They’ve been able to cut back on regulations."

"We have endured 12 years of rule by right-wing interests, and the voters of Wisconsin deserve fair representation," stated Law Forward's Jeff Mandell.

Oral arguments are set for Tuesday.