Wisconsin Supreme Court hearing over redistricting case turns testy

The newly elected liberal justice on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court found herself in the spotlight Tuesday as a hearing over a lawsuit aiming to redraw the state’s legislative maps turned testy.

The Wisconsin high court heard oral arguments in a legal challenge over the state’s maps that was filed by Democratic voters just one day after liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz kicked off her term. The lawsuit argues the state’s legislative lines are “unconstitutional” and “extreme partisan gerrymanders that violate multiple provisions” of the state Constitution, and it urges for the entire legislative map to be redrawn.

But shortly after oral arguments started, Protasiewicz became the topic of discussion during oral arguments, which at times grew contentious as justices grilled attorneys on both sides.

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“Everybody knows that the reason we’re here is because there was a change in the membership of the court. You would not have brought this action, right, if the newest justice had lost her election,” conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley argued to Mark Gaber, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“No, your honor, that — that’s not right,” Gaber responded.

“Law Forward [Wisconsin] actually announced to the media in April after the justice’s election that they would be bringing this very case before the court, and wasn’t that based on that justice’s pronouncements about the maps being ‘rigged?’” Bradley pressed again.  

Gaber again pushed back, saying, “No, your honor, I don’t think anyone said that this case would not be brought, which is, I think, the premise of your question.”

Protasiewicz won her election in April to fill a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, creating a liberal majority on the high court for the first time in 15 years. She garnered criticism from Republicans when she said during a candidate forum that the state’s maps were “rigged.”

“Let’s be clear here — the maps are rigged, bottom line. Absolutely, positively rigged. They do not reflect the people in this state,” Protasiewicz said during the forum, without saying how she would rule over a potential case.

“They do not reflect accurate representation, neither the state Assembly or the state Senate. They are rigged, period. Coming right out and saying that. I don’t think you could sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair,” she continued.

Republicans mulled impeaching Protasiewicz in the event that she did not recuse herself from hearing redistricting cases on the high court, though several former justices have argued against pursuing such an effort.

Just one day after Protasiewicz was sworn in, Democratic voters filed the lawsuit aiming to redraw the state’s election maps. Their lawsuit argued the state’s maps as they stand violate the state Constitution because 21 state Senate districts and 55 Assembly districts are noncontiguous, meaning those districts include pockets of land that are not connected to the rest of the district.

The lawsuit also argues that “the maps violate the Constitution’s separation of powers” because the state’s high court last time “imposed the precise maps the Governor vetoed — a veto that the legislature failed to override.”

The hearing at times grew tense as justices grilled attorneys on issues such as how to achieve fair and neutral maps and over their particular definitions.

“What’s an acceptable number of Republican-leaning seats in your view?” conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn pressed Assistant Attorney General Anthony Russomanno.

“Well, your Honor, there’s no line … particular line needs to be drawn. So in this situation where the court would be creating the map and then looking at or looking at proposals, perhaps, and comparing those proposals, it would just be relative,” Russomano said, after being pressed several times.

“So it’d be is this map showing partisan bias more than this map is showing person bias?” Russomano added.

Meanwhile, liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet pressed Taylor Meehan, representing the GOP-led state Legislature, over her description of the state’s legislative map.

“Forty-five of the 99 Assembly districts, as best I can tell, do not have any municipal islands,” Meehan said before Dallet interjected, “so, only 45 of the 99 Assembly districts are contiguous.”

“No, your honor, and I’m looking forward to getting to my argument that they are — all the districts are contiguous. I really do think we have the better of the text in history. Forty-five do not have any alleged islands,” Meehan added, before the liberal justice interjected to say “detached territory, they’re not islands.”

While the redistricting case does not impact Wisconsin’s congressional maps, the potential to redraw all 132 state Senate and Assembly districts could impact Republicans’ hold in the state Capitol. Republicans currently enjoy clear edges in both chambers, with a 22-11 edge in the Senate and 64-35 in the Assembly.

Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, Heather Williams, the interim president for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said in a statement that the high court was “long overdue in taking up this case.”

“Wisconsin is one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country and Republicans have robbed voters of true representation for far too long. From an unfair balance in the state legislature to seats in Congress, the path to righting this wrong is clear: if Democrats want progress on redistricting, fair election administration, and expanded voting rights, we must invest in the states,” she said.

A decision is projected by early next year at the latest by the high court over the state’s legislative maps, according to The Associated Press.  

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