Wisconsin Supreme Court says it would minimize changes to current election maps, handing Republicans an initial redistricting victory

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  • Rebecca Bradley
    Judge
  • Rebecca Dallet
    American judge, justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court
The Wisconsin Supreme Court hearing room in the state Capitol.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court hearing room in the state Capitol.

MADISON – A narrowly divided state Supreme Court announced Tuesday it would minimize changes it would make to Wisconsin's election maps, effectively guaranteeing Republicans will continue to maintain control of the Legislature for the next decade.

The 4-3 ruling comes as the justices prepare to issue a final ruling that will establish the exact contours of the state's legislative and congressional districts. Where the lines go has a profound effect on which political party has an edge in elections.

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Tuesday's decision broke along ideological lines, with the four conservatives in the majority and the three liberals in the minority.

In the most significant part of their ruling, the justices wrote that they would limit the changes they would make to maps that were drawn 10 years ago, when Republicans controlled all of state government and established district lines that favor their party.

Writing for the majority, Justice Rebecca Bradley contended the justices must make as few changes to the maps as possible as a way to respect the past choices lawmakers have made. They cannot attempt to right what opponents perceive as past wrongs, she wrote.

"Claims of political unfairness in the maps present political questions, not legal ones," she wrote. "Such claims have no basis in the constitution or any other law and therefore must be resolved through the political process and not by the judiciary."

In dissent, Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote that the majority had engaged in "inserting the court directly into politics by ratifying outdated partisan political choices."

States are required to draw new districts every decade to make sure they have equal populations. Approving maps has become increasingly contentious because the political stakes are so high.

Republicans who control the Legislature in November approved maps that are modeled on the GOP-friendly districts that were put in place in 2011. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers quickly vetoed them.

That left it to the courts to decide what to do. All sides have long expected the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a federal court or both to weigh in on where the lines go. Litigation over the issue began even before lawmakers proposed new maps.

Joining Bradley in the majority were Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Justices Brian Hagedorn and Patience Roggensack.

Alongside Dallet in dissent were Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky. The Bradleys are not related.

Hagedorn, who on some high-profile cases has parted with other conservatives, did not sign onto all of Rebecca Bradley's decision. In a concurring opinion, he wrote that he saw room for the court to make some judgment calls on the maps, such as when considering whether communities with common interests should be kept in the same district.

He embraced the idea of making as few changes to the existing maps as possible, but added, "a court is not necessarily limited to considering legal rights and requirements alone when formulating a remedy."

The majority concluded it should make as few changes as possible to the maps because courts should not weigh in on policy matters.

"Just as the laws enacted by the legislature reflect policy choices, so will the maps drawn by that political body. Nothing in the constitution empowers this court to second-guess those policy choices, and nothing in the constitution vests this court with the power of the legislature to enact new maps," Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority.

Dallet in dissent countered that the majority opinion had a political cast to it because it would help cement the Republican advantages that were established a decade ago.

"In effect, a least-change approach that starts with the 2011 maps nullifies voters' electoral decisions since then," she wrote. "In that way, adopting a least-change approach is an inherently political choice. Try as it might, the majority is fooling no one by proclaiming its decision is neutral and apolitical."

The majority also determined Wisconsin’s courts cannot throw out election maps because they are politically lopsided.

The U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in 2019 for federal courts. That ruling means voters around the country cannot challenge maps in federal court if they believe they are drawn to entrench the power of one political party.

Tuesday’s decision means such arguments are also barred in Wisconsin’s state courts.

Those involved in the latest case will have until Dec. 15 to submit proposed maps to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A final decision is expected in the coming weeks or months.

In recent decades, it has been common for federal courts to weigh in on Wisconsin’s election maps. State courts, however, have stayed away from the issue. The Wisconsin Supreme Court last dealt with redistricting in the 1960s.

Those opposed to whatever the state Supreme Court ultimately decides could seek changes to the maps in federal court. Whether federal judges would act after the state court does is unclear.

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Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Supreme Court to minimize changes to current election maps

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