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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Wisconsin Supreme Court Contemplates Case With Potential to Transform State Politics

In a closely watched case that could have significant implications for the political landscape in Wisconsin, the state’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday regarding a challenge to legislative district maps. The maps, considered among the most aggressively gerrymandered in the United States, have been a source of contention and legal battles for years.

The ideological divide on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was evident during the proceedings, with conservatives accusing Democrats of strategically raising constitutional concerns about the maps only after securing a liberal majority on the court.

The liberal justices on the court indicated their sympathy towards the plaintiffs’ argument that the existing legislative districts, characterized by fragmented and non-contiguous pieces, violated the constitutional requirement for districts to be compact and contiguous. The possibility of a complete redraw of the maps was raised during the arguments.

Dozens of Wisconsin voters attended the oral arguments in person, while many others gathered in the State Capitol in Madison to watch the proceedings on television.

Wisconsin’s legislative maps, particularly the current versions favoring Republicans, have been a focal point of political battles. Initially drawn under former Republican Governor Scott Walker, these maps have contributed to Republican dominance in the State Legislature for over a decade, despite the state having roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. Democrats often perform well in statewide elections.

The court is reviewing a petition filed in August on behalf of 19 Democratic voters in Wisconsin. The petition seeks a declaration that the existing maps, updated by the Legislature after the 2020 census to further favor Republicans, are unconstitutional. It also requests the court to order the creation of new maps for the 2024 election.

The potential success of the lawsuit could reshape political power in the state, making more seats accessible for Democrats.

Unlike challenges in other states focused on overtly political considerations, this lawsuit centers on what initially appears to be a neutral technical issue. Lawyers representing Democrats argue that a significant number of current Assembly and Senate districts fail the constitutional requirement of being compact and contiguous.

The suit also contends that the recent updates to the maps violated the State Constitution’s separation of powers clause.

Early in the hearing, Justice Rebecca Bradley, a conservative, questioned why the challenge had not been raised sooner, suggesting that the timing was related to the court’s change in membership. However, Justice Rebecca Dallet, a liberal, dismissed concerns about timing and focused on the constitutional issues at hand.

Lawyers for Republicans argued that Democrats had previously shown no concerns about noncontiguous districts and labeled the Democrats’ claims as “meritless.”

The court’s decision to hear the case in October coincided with a period of heightened tensions. Republican Speaker of the State Assembly Robin Vos had threatened to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal justice who campaigned on issues such as abortion and voting rights, after she won a hotly contested judicial election in April.

The case raises questions about the contiguity requirement, with arguments that Wisconsin’s current district boundaries, unique in their appearance, shock observers across the country.

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court grapples with this challenge to gerrymandered maps, the outcome will have far-reaching consequences, influencing the balance of power and shaping the state’s political landscape for years to come.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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