Wisconsin judges order new legislative maps

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court said Friday that the state's heavily gerrymandered legislative maps that favor Republicans were unconstitutional and ordered new maps before the 2024 elections. The ruling has the potential to produce seismic political change in a crucial state in the presidential election.

Justice Jill J. Karofsky, writing for the majority, said Wisconsin's current maps violate a requirement of the state Constitution “that Wisconsin's state legislative districts must be composed of physically contiguous territory.”

“Given the language of the Constitution, the question before us is simple,” he wrote. “When legislative districts are composed of separate and separate parts, do they consist of 'contiguous territory'? We conclude that this is not the case.”

The decision was widely expected from a court that this year won a 4-3 liberal majority after the most expensive judicial elections in U.S. history. The winner of that election, Judge Janet Protasiewicz, a former Milwaukee County judge, was an outspoken critic of the current legislative maps, calling them “rigged” and “unfair” during her campaign.

A day after Judge Protasiewicz was sworn in before the court in August, a coalition of voting rights groups and law firms filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to hear a redistricting case.

The petition, filed on behalf of 19 Wisconsin voters, sought to have new maps drawn by March. In Friday's 4-3 decision, the court said that if lawmakers do not produce new legislative maps, it is prepared to adopt its own.

Democrats will now have a chance to make progress in a legislature that is currently heavily weighted toward favoring Republicans. In a state with an electorate roughly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans have a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. Democratic Governor Tony Evers was re-elected to a second term in 2022 and will serve at least until 2026.

“It's a great day for democracy in Wisconsin,” said Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator. “This gives us the opportunity to finally have fair maps and let voters choose their elected leaders, not the other way around.”

But Republicans suggested the battle over legislative maps was not over. Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly, said in a statement that the case “was decided beforehand before it was even filed.”

“Sad day for our state when the State Supreme Court just said last year that the existing lines are constitutional,” he said. “The Supreme Court of the United States will have the final say.”

Earlier this year, Vos had threatened to move to impeach Judge Protasiewicz over her statements calling the maps “rigged,” but has since walked back those comments. On Thursday he described the impeachment process against the judge as “super unlikely.”

Democrats rejoiced at the court's decision, hoping that a new legislative map would dramatically increase the number of competitive seats across the state.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer said the new maps could change the balance of power in the Legislature.

“If the maps that come out of the court are fair, we absolutely have a chance to win a majority in Wisconsin,” he said.

That idea was dismissed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who in an email Friday called the ruling a “partisan decision” and rejected the suggestion that the redrawn maps could result in legislative majorities for Democrats.

“This is not the victory the left thinks it is,” Walker said.

Other Republicans criticized the ruling as a power grab by Democrats immediately after Judge Protasiewicz's election.

“We certainly expected this,” said Duey Stroebel, a Republican state senator. “She said while she was running for office that the maps were rigged. Now that they have control of the court, they legislate from the courts.”

In an angry dissent, Judge Annette Ziegler, one of three conservatives on the panel, denounced the liberal majority as “babe wearers” who “seize power and accelerate this partisan call to remap Wisconsin.”

“The court of four tears down the law, giving no room or need to practices, procedures, traditions, the law, or even its equal government peers,” he wrote. “Their activism damages the judiciary as a whole.”

Despite all the partisan animosity surrounding the issue in the state, the ruling reflects the growing politicization of the courts across the country. In North Carolina, for example, the State Supreme Court reversed legislative maps earlier this year after the majority flipped from Democratic to Republican control.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the fairness of the state's maps in November, as bystanders filled a courtroom at the state Capitol.

Conservatives on the court accused Democrats of waiting to raise their claim that the maps violated the state Constitution until they won a liberal majority on the court.

“Everyone knows that the reason we are here is because there was a change in the members of the court,” Judge Rebecca Bradley said, interrupting a lawyer representing Democratic voters.

Lawyers representing Republicans said Democrats had not raised allegations of unfairness over non-contiguous districts in the past. One of the attorneys, Taylor Meehan, said the Democrats' claims were “baseless.”

But Mark Gaber, a lawyer representing Democrats, said the state's strangely twisted maps had disenfranchised voters.

“Wisconsin is the only state that has anything close to this,” Gaber said of the district's current boundaries, adding, “This surprises people all over the country who look at this map.”

It was not immediately clear what effect a redrawn legislative map in Wisconsin might have on the 2024 presidential election. Democrats said they were optimistic that the new maps would create competitive elections in more districts, which could increase turnout.

Dan Lenz, an attorney for the petitioners, called the decision “a victory for representative democracy in the state of Wisconsin.”

“For too long, right-wing interests have manipulated the rules without consequence,” he said. “Manipulated maps have distorted the political landscape, stifling the voice of voters.”



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