Wisconsin lawsuit asks new liberal-controlled Supreme Court to toss Republican-drawn maps

FILE - A man walks by the Wisconsin state Capitol, Oct. 10, 2012, in Madison, Wis. A lawsuit filed Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, with Wisconsins newly liberal-controlled state Supreme Court argues that Republican-drawn legislative maps are unconstitutional and must be redone. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File) (Scott Bauer, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MADISON, Wis. – A lawsuit filed Wednesday asks Wisconsin's newly liberal-controlled state Supreme Court to throw out Republican-drawn legislative maps as unconstitutional, the latest legal challenge of many nationwide that could upset political boundary lines before the 2024 election.

The long-promised action is backed by Democrats and was filed by a coalition of law firms and voting rights advocacy groups. It comes the day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped from a conservative to liberal majority, with the start of the term of a justice who said that the Republican maps were “rigged” and should be reviewed.

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“Despite the fact that our legislative branch is meant to be the most directly representative of the people, the gerrymandered maps have divided our communities, preventing fair representation,” said Jeff Mandell, board president of Law Forward, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks that all 132 state lawmakers be up for election that year in newly drawn districts. In Senate districts that are midway through a four-year term in 2024, there would be a special election with the winner serving two years. Then the regular four-year cycle would resume again in 2026.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Democrats were “counting on judicial fiat to help them gain power.” He accused them of “coming to collect” from the newly elected liberal Supreme Court justice.

The Wisconsin lawsuit is just one of many expected or pending court challenges that could force lawmakers or special commissions to draw yet another set of maps before the 2024 election. In one of the most recent examples, Alabama lawmakers passed new congressional districts last month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that its districts violated federal law by diluting the voting strength of Black residents. Voting rights advocates are challenging the new map as well, contending it still falls short.

All states were required to redraw voting district boundaries after the 2020 census. In states where one political party controlled that process, mapmakers often sought to create an advantage for their party by packing opponents’ voters into a few districts or spreading them among multiple districts — a process known as gerrymandering.

The latest challenge asks the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case directly, rather than have it work through lower courts, arguing that the state legislative maps are an unconstitutional gerrymander. Notably, the lawsuit does not challenge the congressional maps.

Dan Lenz, an attorney at Law Forward, did not rule out a future challenge to the congressional maps, saying targeting the legislative maps is a “first step.”

The petition filed with the Supreme Court argues that the current maps unconstitutionally retaliate against some voters based on their viewpoint and free speech; create non-contiguous districts that include scattered fragments of detached territory; treat some voters worse than others based on their political views and where they live; and violate the promise of a free government.

It also argues that by enacting maps that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed, that Supreme Court violated the state’s separation of powers principle and the governor’s constitutional authority to veto bills.

It would be up to the court to decide how new maps would be drawn and who would submit them, Mandell said.

Evers praised the lawsuit.

“Today’s filing is great news for our democracy and for the people of our state whose demands for fair maps and a nonpartisan redistricting process have gone repeatedly ignored by their legislators for years," Evers said in a statement.

In addition to Law Forward, others who brought the lawsuit on behalf of Wisconsin voters are the Stafford Rosenbaum law firm, Election Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, Campaign Legal Center, and the Arnold & Porter law firm.

In 2021, the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that it would adopt maps that had the least amount of change as possible from the previous maps drawn in 2011 by Republicans. Those maps, which also survived a challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, were widely regarded as among the most gerrymandered in favor of Republicans in the country.

In a sign of how much the 2011 maps entrenched Republican power in the Legislature, Democrats won every statewide race in 2018 and 53% of the statewide legislative vote. And yet, Democrats won just 36 of the state’s 99 Assembly seats.

Republicans currently hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 majority in the Senate.

The state Supreme Court in 2022 initially adopted a map drawn by Evers, plans that largely preserved the district lines favoring Republicans. But the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2022 rejected the legislative maps while it accepted the congressional map.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, on a 4-3 vote then adopted Republican-drawn legislative maps. The court's three liberal justices dissented. They are now in the majority with the arrival of Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose 10-year term began Tuesday.

Protasiewicz ran with support from Democrats and other critics of the current maps and was outspoken during the campaign about her desire to revisit the issue. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Wednesday said he expected Protasiewicz to recuse herself from the case given her comments during the campaign.

“The map issue is really kind of easy, actually,” Protasiewicz said during a candidate debate. “I don’t think anybody thinks those maps are fair. Anybody.”

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb, in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.