Wisconsin's Supreme Court said Friday that the state's overwhelmingly Republican-leaning legislative maps are unconstitutional and ordered new maps to be drawn before the 2024 election. The ruling has the potential to create a seismic political shift in an important presidential swing state.
Judge Jill J. Karofsky, writing for the majority, said Wisconsin's current maps violate the state constitution's requirement that “Wisconsin's state legislative districts consist of physically contiguous territories.”
“Based on the language of the Constitution, the question before us is straightforward,” he wrote. “When legislative districts consist of separate, segregated areas, do they constitute 'contiguous territory'? We conclude that they do not.
The decision was widely expected from the court, which flipped to a 4-to-3 liberal majority this year after the costliest judicial election in American history. The winner of that election, Justice Janet Protasiewicz, a former Milwaukee County judge, has been an outspoken critic of the current legislative maps, calling them “bad” and “unfair” during her campaign.
A day after Justice Protasiewicz was sworn in to the court in August, a coalition of voting rights groups and law firms filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to hear the redistricting case.
The petition, filed on behalf of 19 Wisconsin voters, calls for new maps to be drawn by March. In a 4 to 3 ruling on Friday, the court said it was willing to accept its own map if lawmakers did not prepare new legislative maps.
Democrats have a chance to win in a legislature currently heavily tilted in favor of Republicans. In a state with an electorate roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 majority in the Senate. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, was re-elected for a second term in 2022 and will serve until at least 2026.
“It's a great day for democracy in Wisconsin,” said Kelda Royce, a Democratic state senator. “This will finally allow voters to have fairer maps and choose their elected leaders, rather than the other way around.”
But Republicans suggested the battle over legislative maps isn't over. Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the state Legislature, said in a statement that “this case was decided before it was even brought.”
“It was a sad day for our state last year when the state Supreme Court ruled that existing taxes were constitutional,” he said. “The US Supreme Court will have the last word.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Voss threatened to impeach Justice Protasiewicz because of his statements calling the maps “gross,” but he backed down from those comments. On Thursday, he was invited Impeachment proceedings against justice are “highly unlikely.”
Democrats cheered the court's ruling, hoping the newly drawn legislative map would dramatically increase the number of contested seats statewide.
Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer said the new maps could change the balance of power in the Legislature.
“If the maps that come out of court are fair, we absolutely have a chance to win a majority in Wisconsin,” he said.
That notion was rejected by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who in an email Friday called the ruling a “partisan decision” and dismissed the suggestion that Democrats would gain a legislative majority if the maps were redrawn.
“This is not the victory that the leftists think,” said Mr. Walker said.
Other Republicans criticized the ruling as a power grab by Democrats.
“We certainly expected this,” said Dewey Strobel, a Republican state senator. “She said while running to the office that the maps were rigged. Now that they are in control of the courts, they legislate from the bench.
In an angry dissent, Justice Annette Ziegler, one of three conservatives on the panel, denounced the liberal majority as “cloaked men” who “seized power and fast-tracked this partisan call to reshape Wisconsin.”
“A four-judge court carries a wrecking ball to the law without any need to accommodate long-standing practices, procedures, traditions, law or their equivalent fellow branches of government,” he wrote. “Their activism damages the judiciary as a whole.”
For all the partisan animosity surrounding the issue in the state, the ruling reflects the increasing politicization of courts across the country. In North Carolina, for example, the state Supreme Court reversed itself on legislative maps earlier this year after the majority flipped from Democratic to Republican control.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the integrity of the state's maps in November, with an audience packed into the courtroom at the state capitol.
Conservatives on the court accused Democrats of waiting until they had a liberal majority on the court to raise their claim that the maps violated the state constitution.
“Everybody knows the reason we're here is because there's been a change in the membership of the court,” Judge Rebecca Bradley said, interrupting a lawyer representing Democratic voters.
Attorneys representing Republicans said Democrats have not raised unfair claims about noncontiguous districts in the past. Taylor Meehan, one of the attorneys, called the Democrats' claims “without merit.”
But Mark Gaber, a lawyer representing the Democratic Party, said the state's strangely skewed maps were dissuading voters.
Regarding the current district boundaries, Mr. Gaber said, “It's going to shock people across the country who are looking at this map.”
It's not immediately clear what effect Wisconsin's redrawn legislative map will have on the 2024 presidential election. Democrats said they hoped the new maps would create competitive elections in more districts and boost turnout.
Don Lenz, an attorney for the petitioners, called the decision “a victory for representative democracy in the state of Wisconsin.”
“For too long, right-wing interests have rigged the rules with no consequences,” he said. “Gerrymandered maps have distorted the political landscape and stifled the voice of voters.”