MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conservative justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned why it was being asked to overturn Republican-drawn legislative maps in a redistricting case that Democrats hope will result in new, more favorable legislative maps for elections in 2024.
The lawsuit was brought by Democratic voters the day after the court flipped to majority 4-3 liberal control in August.
Liberal justices, meanwhile, asked for details about how the court would adopt new maps, as they are being asked to do.
Four of the six past presidential elections in battleground Wisconsin have been decided by fewer than 23,000 votes, and Republicans have built large majorities in the Legislature under maps they drew over a decade ago.
Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley immediately interrupted the first attorney arguing for new maps, questioning why they waited until after August, when liberal justices took majority control of the court. She noted that the newly elected Justice Janet Protasiewicz said during her campaign that the current maps are “rigged.”
“Everybody knows that the reason we’re here is because there was a change in the membership of the court,” Bradley said.
Attorney Mark Gaber, from the Campaign Legal Center, said the election result had nothing to do with the timing of the lawsuit. He said the challenge over whether the districts are unconstitutionally not contiguous would have been filed, regardless of the makeup of the court.
“I don’t see that as a partisan issue,” Gaber said.
Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, another conservative, expressed concern about the court being asked to overturn its ruling from last year enacting the maps.
“Is there any end to this litigation?” Ziegler asked.
The court was expected to issue its ruling no later than early 2024. The state elections commission has said maps must be in place by March 15 if the new districts are to be in play for the November elections.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been controlled by liberal justices since Protasiewicz took her seat in August after her April election victory. She called the GOP-drawn maps “unfair” and “rigged” during her campaign, leading Republicans to threaten to impeach her before she had even heard a case. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos backed off, but kept the threat alive if she votes to strike down the maps.
Democrats want the court to strike down the legislative maps, draw new ones, and order elections under those maps for all 132 state lawmakers in 2024. If the court rules that way, the case would certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s unclear whether there would be a ruling in time for the 2024 election.
The Legislature argues that if new maps are ordered, nothing should be enacted any sooner than the 2026 election.
Bradley said ordering elections for all 132 lawmakers, including half of the Senate midway through their current terms, was “absolutely extraordinary.”
“I can’t imagine something less democratic than unseating most of the Legislature that was duly elected last year,” she said.
Attorney Tamara Packard, representing Democratic senators, said she agreed it was an “extreme remedy,” but justified because the current maps are unconstitutional.
Liberal justices focused their questions on who would recommend new maps to the court if they ordered them, and what criteria should be considered when creating new lines.
Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who sometimes rules with liberals, asked how the court can determine when a map is too partisan.
“How many Republicans are permissible?” he asked. “How many Democrats?”
Attorneys seeking new maps argued that in a competitive state like Wisconsin, who has control over the Legislature should shift from election to election based on which side gets more votes.
“There’s no magic number in this situation that needs to be met,” said Assistant Attorney General Anthony Russomanno, representing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Litigation is ongoing in more than dozen states over U.S. House and state legislative districts enacted after the 2020 census.
New York’s highest court heard arguments last week on whether an independent redistricting commission must take another crack at drawing congressional districts. New Mexico’s Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on an appeal of a lower court ruling that rejected assertions the Democratic-led Legislature had illegally gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts. Last week, a federal judge in North Dakota ruled that state legislative districts drawn by the Republican majority violated the voting rights of two Native American tribes and must be redrawn by Dec. 22.
The Democrats’ case in Wisconsin centers on whether the districts are not contiguous and if they violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.
Though the Wisconsin Constitution requires legislative districts “to consist of contiguous territory,” many contain sections of land that are not actually connected. The resulting map looks a bit like Swiss cheese, where some districts are dotted with small neighborhood holes assigned to different representatives.
“This shocks people across the country who look at this map,” Gaber said during oral arguments. “Wisconsin is the only state that has anything that looks anything like this.”
Wisconsin’s redistricting laws, backed by state and federal court rulings over the past 50 years, have permitted districts under certain circumstances to be noncontiguous, attorneys for the Legislature argued. Even if the court decided to address the issue, it could only affect districts that are considered not contiguous and must not upend existing district lines, Republicans argued.
Those seeking new maps contend that the Supreme Court violated the separation of powers doctrine when it adopted the Republican-drawn map that Evers had previously vetoed, “improperly seizing powers for itself the Constitution assigns to other branches.”
The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cemented the party’s majorities, which stand at 64-35 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate.
Associated Press writers David Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Harm Venhuizen in Madison contributed to this report.