U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Wisconsin Redistricting Case

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

June 19, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday to hear a landmark case over Wisconsin’s redistricting maps.

Now the whole country will get to see the crude manipulations that the Republican leadership engaged in when they created these maps in secret shortly after they took power in 2011.

The maps were not drawn in public, in the Wisconsin Capitol, but instead in a locked office of the private, pricey law firm across the street, Michael Best & Friedrich.

The media wasn’t allowed in. The public wasn’t allowed in. Democrats weren’t allowed in. Even Republican legislators who were not in leadership had to ask to be let in the locked room, and once they got to see their own redrawn districts, they had to sign an oath of secrecy.

That’s not how the people’s business is supposed to be done.

The Republican leadership hired demographic specialists and computer experts to employ the latest mapping technology to create maps that were more rigged than almost any in modern history. 

And the new maps did what they were designed to do: They ensured that the Republicans grabbed more seats. For instance, in the first election under the plan, Republicans won 60 out of 99 seats in the Assembly despite losing the aggregate statewide vote.

Last November, a panel of three federal judges ruled that these maps amounted to an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Democrats. The 2-to-1 decision was written by Judge Kenneth Francis Ripple, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It is clear that the drafters got what they intended to get,” wrote Judge Ripple. “It secured for Republicans a lasting Assembly majority. It did so by allocating votes among the newly created districts in such a way that, in any likely electoral scenario, the number of Republican seats would not drop below 50 percent.”

The three-judge panel then unanimously ordered the Republican leadership to redraw the maps in a constitutional manner, and they set a November 1 deadline for this so that voters in Wisconsin would no longer be burdened with voting in districts whose boundaries were drawn in a hyper-partisan manner.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed the 2-to-1 decision, and the Supreme Court, as was expected, accepted the appeal. Schimel also asked for a “stay” – a hold -- on the order to redraw the maps, and as expected, the Supreme Court granted the stay. Neither of those moves is a reliable indicator as to how the Court will ultimately rule.

The Court is expected to hear arguments in the case this fall, which means it should rule on the case within the year.

This is a case that has enormous national implications, which would apply regardless of which party holds power in a state. If the Supreme Court agrees with the federal panel, then Democrats who control both houses and the governorship in a state like Rhode Island couldn’t redraw maps to solidify their hold on power, just as Republicans in Wisconsin couldn’t. The plaintiffs in this case have supplied an objective yardstick to measure such unconstitutional gerrymandering, which could prove persuasive to the justices on the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, there is a growing movement to reform the way the state draws its maps and to take it out of the hands of the party in power and place it in the hands of career civil servants who would create the maps with specific criteria that would prevent any kind of rigging. Iowa has been doing it this way for the past 35 years, and very successfully. If it works in Iowa, it can work in Wisconsin.

Nine Wisconsin counties just this year have passed resolutions demanding such a change. And eight counties passed such a resolution in previous years.

And legislation has been introduced by Sen. Dave Hansen (SB13) and Rep. Don Vruwink (AB44) to enact this change and adopt the Iowa model for Wisconsin.