Wisconsin Supreme Court adopts Republican-authored legislative maps, reversing earlier approval of Evers’ maps

MADISON, Wis. (WISC/AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court has decided the state will adopt Senate and Assembly maps authored by Republican lawmakers as part of the redistricting process rather than maps proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

In a 4-3 ruling Friday, the court ruled in favor of the Republican maps after initially approving the maps Evers pushed. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state Supreme Court didn’t make a strong enough argument for why Evers’ maps should be approved and kicked the case back to the state court.

READ MORE: For the Record: ‘A major headache’ for Wis. election officials after Supreme Court redistricting decision

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler authored the majority opinion, which justices Pat Roggensack, Rebecca Bradley and Brian Hagedorn joined. It concludes:

“Upon review of the record, we conclude that insufficient evidence is presented to justify drawing state legislative districts on the basis of race. The maps proposed by the Governor, Senator Bewley, BLOC, and CMS are racially motivated and, under the Equal Protection Clause, do not survive strict scrutiny. By contrast, the maps proposed by the Wisconsin Legislature are race neutral. The Legislature’s maps comply with the Equal Protection Clause, along with all other applicable federal and state legal requirements. Further, the Legislature’s maps exhibit minimal changes to the existing maps.”

In a dissent, Justice Jill Karofsky, joined by justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet, called the process that played out in the courts “a profoundly disheartening odyssey”:

“The unavoidable political nature of remedial redistricting plagued us every step of the way. Too rarely did this process present true questions of law——this court’s only area of expertise. At every change in the tide, this court seemed to choose what it hoped to be a short-cut to streamline our voyage, only to find ourselves lost and unable to do our work as a non-partisan court of law. But the redistricting process is likely to stalemate and come before this court again in the future. And when it does, I hope that we have learned our lesson. I hope that we will permit a politically insulated federal court to manage the task. Federal courts are better able to conduct extensive factfinding through trial-style litigation, a task for which we proved ill equipped.”

In late November, the state’s highest court said it would make the minimum number of changes necessary to the state’s electoral maps to make sure they follow federal law. At the time, the conservative majority argued it’s not the court’s job to draw maps that are politically “fair.”

Democrats have argued the latest Republican maps further solidify the gerrymandering from the maps put in place in 2011.

Friday’s decision from the state court came the same day candidates could start circulating nomination papers to get on the ballot. Prior to the decision, candidates didn’t know for certain if they were running in the correct district and potential signers wouldn’t know if they lived in the candidate’s district and were eligible to sign the form.

Lawmakers, stakeholders react

Rick Esenberg, the president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is representing the plaintiff in the case, praised the court’s decision.

“We are pleased that the Court recognized that our Constitution reserves race-based decision making for the most extreme situations,” he said. “The Governor did not justify his race-based redistricting. The Court was right to reject it.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) similarly praised the ruling.

“We have thought our maps were the best option from the beginning. We appreciate the court’s due diligence and are glad to move forward with these maps that make the least changes and comply with traditional redistricting criteria,” he tweeted.

Evers, meanwhile, called the decision “outrageous”:

“This is an outrageous decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This court had clearly and decisively rejected the Legislature’s maps prior to this case being considered by the Supreme Court of the United States, and today, they have backtracked on that decision, upholding the very maps they had previously found to unlawfully ‘pack’ Black voters. At a time when our democracy is under near-constant attack, the judiciary has abandoned our democracy in our most dire hour. Wisconsinites want a democracy, they want fair representation, and they want fair maps as they have demanded of this government for ten years. Today, they receive no recourse.

“This is an unconscionable miscarriage of justice for which the people of this state will see no reprieve for another decade.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, tweeted the ruling “is a travesty for democracy in Wisconsin.”

“The court, applying a new standard in a case it never should have taken, has made one of the most extreme gerrymanders in America even worse,” he wrote. “This ruling entrenches control by politicians rather than voters, sapping what life remained from any claim that our legislature meaningfully represents the People.”

In a statement, Sachin Chheda, the director of the Fair Elections Project, said “the extremely partisan justices on the State Supreme Court are choosing to kill democracy in 2022” and called the decision “a major setback in the fight for fair maps.”

“Today, the justices in the majority chose judicial activism,” Chheda said. “The rigged maps drawn by the legislature last year were previously rejected three times — and these maps are even more gerrymandered than those drawn in 2011. Without any legal basis or precedent, and ignoring a decision they made just a month ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is showing its true colors: political gain over judicial fairness.”

Mel Barnes of Law Forward, the group representing Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Voces de la Frontera in the case, said there is a possibility of further appeal of the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“It’s hard to say when those [appeals] would be resolved,” she said. “But today’s decision really flies in the face of what Wisconsinites have been asking for.”

She said those appeals would have to focus on matters of federal law, like the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination from diluting the voting power of minority groups. An appeal, however, may take too long, as swing justice Hagedorn noted in his concurring opinion.

“The window of opportunity to conduct a fresh trial with new evidence, new briefing, and potentially new arguments is well past,” he wrote.

Federal courts have also disfavored making changes to election administration close to elections.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.