Wisconsin Redistricting Lawsuit Headed to Federal Court

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday declined to re-evaluate the state's contentious electoral maps, meaning a federal trial will begin to determine whether the maps were drawn in compliance with legal restrictions.
by | February 23, 2012

MILWAUKEE — Republican lawmakers on Wednesday declined to re-evaluate the state's contentious electoral maps, meaning a federal trial will begin to determine whether the maps were drawn in compliance with legal restrictions.

The trial was originally scheduled to begin Tuesday, but a panel of three federal judges seemed almost reluctant to push forward. They cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that said redistricting, the process of drawing new voter maps every 10 years, is better left to lawmakers than to a court.

The judges twice asked attorneys in the case to meet with lawmakers to see if they would consider modifying the maps. Republican leaders said Tuesday afternoon they were willing to do so but they didn't think state law allowed them to edit maps that had already been signed into law, as these were last summer.

The court rejected that argument Wednesday. The judges gave attorneys a five-hour window to make a second pitch to lawmakers, but again the GOP lawmakers declined.

That set the stage for a trial to begin Thursday morning. It's expected to last until late Friday.

The issue of redistricting, or adjusting the borders of voting districts, is important because it can affect the outcomes of elections. For example, the party in charge can try to create districts that lump its voters together, giving it a majority in certain areas that would be difficult for the other party to overcome. The new maps could give Republicans an edge toward maintaining their 17-16 majority in the Senate.

Republicans developed the maps in secret and passed them last year in a GOP-led Legislature. In response, Democrats filed a federal lawsuit claiming the maps violate the U.S. Constitution because they unnecessarily shift hundreds of thousands of voters into new districts.

An immigrant-rights group, Voces de la Frontera, also sued, alleging that the new voting lines separated blocs of Latino voters into different districts, weakening their voting power. The lawsuits, which were eventually consolidated, seek to prevent the state Government Accountability Board from conducting elections based on the new maps.

In a morning session Wednesday, Dan Kelly, an attorney representing the Government Accountability Board, said he was concerned that even if the Legislature agreed to make changes to satisfy the current plaintiffs, some new group could file a legal challenge to the modified maps. He asked the judges whether modified maps could be given a court stamp of approval to ward off new challenges.

"There's always going to be some group of people that want something different," he said.

The judges said all they could do was rule on the facts of the specific case before them. If the current plaintiffs' concerns are addressed, the case would be dismissed, they said, but they couldn't do anything to prevent other groups from filing subsequent challenges.

Kelly and Peter Earle, an attorney representing Voces, declined to comment afterward.

The court also ruled that an attorney who helped lawmakers draw the maps could be deposed by the plaintiffs. The attorney, Jim Troupis, had argued that his dealings were protected by attorney-client privilege. But the court found that the legal aspects of his work were tied into political and strategic aspects and so, with a few exceptions, forfeited the right to confidentiality.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to invalidate the 2012 maps and to order that the previous maps be used for general and recall elections this year until the court establishes a fairer redistricting plan.

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