Wisconsin Democrats renew redistricting court battle

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democrats worked Friday to keep their challenge to Wisconsin's Republican-drawn legislative boundaries alive, renewing a federal lawsuit contending the lines are unfair to voters and filing a second action alleging the maps are hurting fundraising and candidate recruitment.

A dozen Democratic voters filed a federal lawsuit three years ago alleging Republican lawmakers unconstitutionally consolidated GOP power when they redrew the boundaries in 2011, diluting Democrats' voting power by spreading them out across new, Republican-heavy districts and packing them together in areas that traditionally lean left.

A three-judge panel agreed, but Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices in June refused to hear the case, saying the plaintiffs lacked a right to sue on a statewide basis. Rather than dismissing the lawsuit, however, the court gave the plaintiffs a chance to prove standing.

Democrats filed an amended complaint Friday in federal court that adds 28 more Democratic voters as plaintiffs. The voters are now spread across 34 Assembly districts. They allege that the Republican-drawn lines were unnecessary and that their voting power was diluted because they were placed in Republican districts.

The new filing also contends that the boundaries violate the Democratic voters' constitutional right to free association, a new argument that their attorneys say gives them the right to challenge the entire map.

"It's time for the courts to stop hesitating and start protecting the fundamental right to vote from the harms caused by the distortions of gerrymandering," Paul Smith, vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, the law firm representing the Democratic voters, said in a statement.

The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee filed a second challenge in federal court hours after the voters filed their revised complaint.

The committee lawsuit argues the boundaries interfere with its right to free association by impeding fundraising and volunteer and candidate recruitment. The committee couldn't find suitable candidates for 29 districts in 2014, the largest number of seats Democrats have allowed to go uncontested since at least 1972, the lawsuit says.

"On multiple occasions, the Assembly Democrats identified highly qualified potential candidates, but they declined to run for office because of their inability to compete effectively," the lawsuit said.

Schimel spokeswoman Rebecca Ballweg didn't immediately reply to emails seeking comment on both lawsuits.

All federal redistricting challenges are heard by three-judge panels and appeals go directly to the Supreme Court. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Ripple and U.S. District Judge William Griesbach heard the voters' first case, with Crabb and Ripple voting to strike down the boundaries.

The voters' new complaint has been assigned to the same panel, although Crabb has withdrawn and been replaced with U.S. District Judge James Peterson. He could be the swing vote that decides the case. The loser will almost certainly appeal to the Supreme Court.

The committee's complaint hasn't been assigned to a panel yet, but it's likely ultimately headed for the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

Wisconsin isn't the only state embroiled in legal battles over district boundaries.

A federal three-judge panel struck down 12 of North Carolina's 13 Republican-drawn congressional districts in late August, finding Republicans drew them with excessive partisanship. Republicans' attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

The same three-judge panel declared that state's congressional districts unconstitutional in January. The U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the judges in June for review after it refused to hear the Wisconsin case.

Republican voters in Maryland sued in 2011 over a single congressional district that was redrawn to flip the seat Democratic, according to the state's former Democratic governor. That case has yet to go to trial.

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