Wisconsin's Legislative maps ruled unconstitutional by state Supreme Court

NOW: Wisconsin’s Legislative maps ruled unconstitutional by state Supreme Court

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled late Friday afternoon the state's legislative district maps, which Republicans drew, are unconstitutional.

The court issued its ruling in a 4-3 decision with the court's four liberal justices striking down the current maps, granting Democrats a major victory.

The decision now means the current maps, that are often referred to by experts as the most gerrymandered in the country, will be redrawn ahead of the 2024 election.

While those challenging the current maps, including Gov. Tony Evers, sought to put every legislative seat up for re-election, the court instead decided only 16 Senate seats will be on the next fall, allowing 17 senators elected in 2022 to serve a full four-year term. All 99 Assembly seats are up for re-election every two years.

Attorneys for Democratic voters filed the suit in August and asked justices to rule the current maps, that have given Republicans a big advantage over the last decade, must be thrown out largely on two claims.

One argument was that the maps violate the state's constitutional requirement that districts be contiguous and physically adjacent to one another. The suit also argued the state Supreme Court violated the separation of powers law in 2022 after they adopted a map in 2021 that Evers vetoed.

In the ruling, which you can read in full here, the court found too many of the Legislature's districts to be disconnected. The majority opinion, written by Justice Jill Karofsky, deemed 50 of the state's 99 Assembly districts and 20 of the 33 Senate districts were noncontiguous. 

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Janet Protasiewicz, whose April election swung the court's balance of power, concurred with Karofsky.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court's liberal majority cited these Senate districts in Dane and Racine counties as examples of disconnected pieces that were unconstitutional. Matthew Myers

The justices will now allow the Legislature to redraw the maps, but it's unlikely GOP lawmakers will produce a set of maps Evers will sign. While that process plays out over the next couple of months, the court is also having both parties submit their own map proposals, and it will bring in outside experts to consult on which map the court should choose.

While the Wisconsin Constitution does not mention partisan fairness as a condition of acceptable legislative maps, the ruling stated the court will consider whether the maps are biased when selected new maps.

"Unlike the legislative and executive branches, which are political by nature, this court must remain politically neutral," Karofsky's opinion stated. "We do not have free license to enact maps that privilege one political party over another."

The court's three conservative justices, Rebecca Bradley, Brian Hagedorn and Annette Ziegler, dissented. In her opinion, Bradley wrote the progressive majority was aiding Democrats in a power grab.

"Democrats may cheer the majority's mission to bestow political power on their party," Bradley wrote. "But the majority's abandonment of neutrality delegitimizes the institution."

Democrats indeed welcomed the decision. Evers in a statement Friday said he looked forward "to submitting maps to the Court to consider and review that reflect and represent the makeup of our state."

State Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) said she believed the new map-drawing process would result in more competitive districts, which in turn, would make lawmakers more accountable to voters.

"I believe it's gonna produce legislation that is going to help more of the average person, that certainly, I represent," she told CBS 58 Friday.

Earlier this week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told CBS 58 he was confident the new maps would still yield a Republican majority. He noted Democratic voters are largely clustered in urban areas, making it challenging to draw contiguous districts with a near 50-50 split between conservatives and liberals.

"The geography of Wisconsin already -- they've admitted it in their court filings, they've admitted it on the floor of the Assembly -- geography of Wisconsin favors Republicans," Vos said. "So, we are gonna be in charge after the '24 election unless there's some kind of a radical liberal gerrymander."

Robert Yablon, an associate law professor at UW-Madison, said he believed it was possible to draft more competitive districts, particularly in Southeast Wisconsin.

"There were some fairly competitive districts in the Milwaukee area, and what happened in the 2011 map was a lot of packing of communities," Yablon said.

A possible wild card: The Voting Rights Act

Two years ago, the state Supreme Court picked maps submitted by a commission crafted by Evers. Hagedorn swung that decision, siding with the liberal minority.

Republicans challenged the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then struck down the maps in March 2022. The nation's high court ruled the maps violated the Voting Rights Act by creating one fewer majority-Black district in Milwaukee.

That outlines the challenge for Democratic mapmakers this time around: Can they carve out more evenly-divided districts without substantially reducing the chances candidates of color have of winning seats? Yablon said he believes it's possible.

"In the Milwaukee area, the Voting Rights Act does add a wrinkle that would make it a little bit more challenging," he said. "I have not tried to play around with the lines myself. I suspect that there would be ways to do it in the Milwaukee area, too, where you could bolster competitiveness, at least somewhat."

State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) released a statement Friday criticizing both Republicans and Evers' past maps. She called for the next set of maps to avoid reducing racial minorities' representation in Madison.

"I fear that federal judges will be the deciding factor in the quest to secure maps that don't dilute the voting power of Black residents," she said. 

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