The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a split decision Thursday to adopt Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ “least change” proposal for the state’s 10-year legislative and congressional district maps – boundaries that would maintain Republican majorities in the Legislature but likely prevent them from claiming a veto-proof supermajority.
The state’s high court issued a 4-3 ruling in favor of maps proposed last year by Evers, with conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn, a regular swing vote on the court, siding with liberal justices Rebecca Dallet, Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky in the ruling .
The ruling comes months after Hagedorn and the court’s conservatives ruled that they would follow a “least change” approach from the current maps, which are considered some of the most gerrymandered in the nation.
In a statement following the court’s ruling, Evers said, “The maps I submitted to the Court that were selected today are a vast improvement from the gerrymandered maps Wisconsin has had for the last decade and the even more gerrymandered Republican maps that I vetoed last year . ”
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Asked about the court’s decision, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he was “still analyzing it.”
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, criticized Evers for coming up with new maps without a public input process.
The majority of justices concluded that maps proposed by the governor most align with the “least change” approach.
“No other proposal comes close,” Hagedorn wrote on the matter of core retention of districts. “The Governor’s proposed Senate and Assembly maps produce less overall change than other submissions.”
With regard to congressional districts, Evers’ maps move a little over 324,000 people into new districts – about 60,000 fewer than the next closest map, which was drawn by congressional Republicans.
Conservative justices Rebecca Bradley, Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler dissented, with Ziegler writing that the majority’s opinion “demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the Wisconsin Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause.”
“The majority’s decision to select Governor Tony Evers’ maps is an exercise of judicial activism, untethered to evidence, precedent, the Wisconsin Constitution, and basic principles of equal protection,” Ziegler wrote.
Evers set up the court battle over the state’s next decennial maps when he vetoed GOP-drawn boundaries in mid-November. The governor had championed boundaries drawn by the People’s Maps Commission, but those maps failed to get universal support among legislative Democrats, with some criticizing the boundaries for potentially diminishing Black and Hispanic representation in the Legislature.
After the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “least change” approach, Evers submitted new maps that made fewer changes than the Republican proposal, while also slightly reducing the projected Republican advantage in the Legislature.
The new maps hand Democrats a marginal win, but they still keep many districts “impenetrable” for the party, UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said.
“I think it tells us what the politics of the state Legislature are going to be like for the next decade,” Burden said.
Democrats expressed some relief at the decision.
“Thanks to Governor Evers and Justice Hagedorn, Wisconsin will have fairer maps,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason. “My Democratic colleagues and I will continue to fight for nonpartisan redistricting, but fair-minded people can breathe a little easier knowing the Supreme Court has rejected the Republicans’ efforts to stack the deck.”
Advocates for nonpartisan district lines said the court’s decision to follow a least-change approach made it near impossible to undo gerrymandered districts drawn a decade ago, the first time in decades the maps were drawn by a single party without a court’s intervention.
“Let me be clear: this fight is still far from over, and those who worked to rig these maps will be held accountable for ignoring the Constitution and the law and for ruling against the people of Wisconsin in implementing a ‘least-changes’ map that continues the gerrymander, ”Fair Elections project director Sachin Chheda said in a statement.
“The partisan maps adopted today, which intentionally disenfranchise a majority of Wisconsin residents, are an unfair and poor outcome in this case and pose a serious threat to representative democracy in our state,” Chheda said. “It’s deeply upsetting that early in this case, extreme, activist, right-wing judges ignored the law and the Constitution to rig the process to maintain their Party’s grip on power.”
By applying the average of six statewide elections since 2016, Evers’ new maps would elect 44 Democrats and 55 Republicans in the Assembly, and 13 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the Senate. In Congress, Republicans would maintain five seats to Democrats ‘three, according to Evers’ office.
Republicans currently hold a 61-38 majority in the Assembly and a 21-12 majority in the Senate. Five of the state’s eight congressional districts are held by Republicans.
“Over the next 10 years, under the Governor’s maps adopted today, the people of Wisconsin will have a renewed chance for competitive elections and for their will to be reflected by their elected officials,” Chris Walloch, executive director of liberal advocacy group A Better Wisconsin Together, said in a statement.
UW-La Crosse political science assistant professor Anthony Chergosky said the court’s ruling does not resolve the “Democratic Party’s core problem” of voters clustered in urban areas while Republican voters are spread throughout the state, but it does raise the stakes going into Evers’ reelection.
“His veto pen will remain powerful should he get reelected because this map really makes it hard for Republicans to achieve their long-held goal of attaining a veto-proof majority,” Chergosky said.
Chergosky added that the maps will still give the Republican Party a comfortable but not overwhelming majority in the Legislature.
The Supreme Court’s decision may not be the final word on the matter. Advocates for nonpartisan maps could try to take the matter to a pending case before the US Supreme Court that was filed by Democrats. Whether the federal court takes up the case likely hinges on whether the maps chosen by the state Supreme Court comply with requirements in federal law, such as the Voting Rights Act.
Roggensack criticized the majority’s opinion, accusing the justices of engaging in “racial gerrymandering contrary to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
“It is my hope that the United States Supreme Court will be asked to review Wisconsin’s unwarranted racial gerrymander, which clearly does not survive strict scrutiny,” Roggensack wrote.
The Legislature must redraw political lines every decade based on the latest population figures from the US Census Bureau. In 2011, Republicans, working in secretive conditions, drew maps that packed Democratic voters into lopsided districts and spread out rural and suburban Republicans into districts with solid, but narrower, majorities. The maps allowed the GOP to hold more than 60% of legislative seats, even when Democrats won all statewide elections in 2018.
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