MADISON – The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Republicans properly hired their redistricting attorneys Thursday as the justices prepare to decide where to draw the state's legislative and congressional lines.
The dispute over the Republicans' attorneys was a sidelight to a larger fight over where to put the lines. The justices are expected to decide the bigger case in the coming weeks.
Republican legislators in late 2020 and early 2021 hired attorneys at taxpayer expense in anticipation of litigation over the district lines. A group of Madison teachers, arguing lawmakers can hire attorneys if they are sued — but not before then.
Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke agreed with them in April 2021 and dissolved their contracts with the attorneys because no litigation had yet begun.
In July, the state Supreme Court temporarily reinstated the contracts while it considered whether their hiring was proper. On Thursday, the justices concluded the hiring was appropriate.
As with the July decision, Thursday's ruling was 4-3. The majority consisted of justices elected with the help of Republicans. The dissenters won their seats with backing from Democrats.
The majority concluded state law gives legislators broad authority to hire attorneys, including before litigation begins.
Hiring attorneys in advance is particularly important "in an area such as redistricting, where multiple levels of law from both state and federal sources present substantial compliance difficulties to even the most astute legal mind," Chief Justice Annette Ziegler wrote for the majority.
She was joined in the opinion by Justices Rebecca Bradley, Brian Hagedorn and Patience Roggensack.
Writing for the dissenters, Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote that lawmakers had not properly authorized the hiring of the attorneys because their contracts were not approved by a vote of the Legislature or its Joint Committee on Legislative Organization.
"In ignoring this statutory requirement, the majority wrongly allows (lawmakers) to exercise purchasing authority they don't have, thereby eliminating a safeguard against the misuse of taxpayer dollars," Dallet wrote.
Signing onto Dallet's dissent were Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky. (Ann and Rebecca Bradley are not related.)
At issue was an agreement legislative leaders signed with attorney Adam Mortara and Consovoy McCarthy, a Washington, D.C. law firm that has represented former President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee. Under the contract with Wisconsin lawmakers, Mortara and the firm are being paid as much as $200,000 a month.
States every decade must draw new legislative and congressional districts to make sure they have equal populations. How the districts are drawn can give one political party large advantages in elections.
Redistricting almost always leads to litigation. This time, the matter went to court because Republicans who control the Legislature could not agree with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on where to put the lines.
The state Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in that case soon. All of the maps it is considering favor Republicans to varying degrees.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Supreme Court rules GOP properly hired redistricting lawyers