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Wisconsin Supreme Court takes redistricting lawsuit filed by conservatives
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Wisconsin Supreme Court takes redistricting lawsuit filed by conservatives

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to accept a redistricting case filed by conservatives just a day after a federal court established a timeline for a trial in another case challenging Wisconsin’s political maps brought by Democrats.

The case the Supreme Court accepted was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in August and, like the Democratic lawsuit, argues the state’s current political maps, adopted in 2011, are unconstitutional and courts should establish a plan to draw new lines because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will not be able to agree. WILL is representing four Wisconsin voters who live in legislative districts the law firm believes are malapportioned, leading to their votes being diluted.

The Legislature hasn’t passed a set of new Assembly, Senate and congressional maps, nor has it established a timeline for doing so.

The 4-3 ruling by the court’s conservatives means that there are two simultaneous lawsuits challenging Wisconsin’s political maps, one consolidated lawsuit brought by Democrats in federal court, and another brought by conservatives in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, a panel of judges in the redistricting case brought by Democrats and activist groups set a timeline for a potential trial in order to issue a ruling by March 1, 2022, ahead of the circulation of nomination papers for the 2022 primary elections, though the court said it’s open to different timeline suggestions. The Legislature has argued that the March 1 deadline can be pushed back.

The federal lawsuit is being overseen by a panel of three judges, two appointees of former President Barack Obama and one of former President Donald Trump. Conservatives maintain a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

If Evers and the Legislature can’t agree on a set of maps, Republicans are banking on the state Supreme Court to draw maps instead, while Democrats want the federal courts to do so.

In accepting the case, the state Supreme Court majority said redistricting lawsuits clearly belong in state courts.

“This court has long deemed redistricting challenges a proper subject for the court’s exercise of its original jurisdiction,” the majority wrote.

Every 10 years, the Legislature is tasked with drawing Wisconsin’s new congressional and legislative voting district lines to be used for the next 10 years. The lines are based off of census data that shows population changes in neighborhoods, cities and counties since 2010.

Both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Republicans, but not by a large enough margin to overcome Evers’ veto. If they can’t agree on maps, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, federal courts or both could step in to ensure new maps are in place to be used for the 2022 primary and general elections.

The Census Bureau released its data for 2020, and the findings show a diversifying nation with a migration pattern that will greatly affect its politics going forward. Poppy MacDonald, the president of non-profit data organization USAFacts, joined Cheddar to break down what the shifts mean in terms of congressional seats for states and the first time decline in the white population since 1790. "What we're seeing is we're becoming more diverse as a country, and we're also seeing a migration of population, more people going to the South and more people going to the West in terms of where they're moving," MacDonald said.

If the Legislature and governor can’t agree on new maps, the WILL lawsuit asks the court make “the least number of changes to the existing maps as are necessary.”

Oct. 6 deadline

In its ruling, the court asked the parties in the case to file briefs by Oct. 6 answering the question of when a new redistricting plan must be in place, and why. During a hearing on Tuesday in the federal case brought by Democrats, a panel of judges indicated it wants political maps in place by March 1.

March 15 is the statutory deadline for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to notify county clerks of which offices will be voted on in the November 2022 election and where information on district boundaries can be found.

The court on Tuesday declined to declare at the outset that new political maps are needed immediately, noting an inadequate record to make such a ruling. The court also declined to pause proceedings in the case.

“Adopting new state legislative and congressional maps is a state responsibility,” WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said in a statement. “We are pleased the Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirmed this longstanding principle and accepted jurisdiction in the event the courts have to act.”

Timing questioned

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, said absent the governor and Legislature agreeing on a set of new political maps, the federal court is a better jurisdiction for redistricting cases.

“The reality is that whatever happens in state court still will almost certainly need to be reviewed in federal court, and this exponentially increases costs for the taxpayers, who will be paying for duplicative litigation in multiple venues,” Chheda said in a statement. “And this surely does not speed up the process.”

In her dissent, joined by liberal justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky, Justice Rebecca Dallet said now is not the time for the state Supreme Court to intervene in the redistricting process.

She said the majority’s order “prematurely injects the court into the political process, risks undermining the court’s independence, and circumvents the statutory process for addressing redistricting challenges.”

Looking back a decade later, 10 stories about Act 10

The most seismic political story of the last decade in Wisconsin began on Feb. 7, 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker informed a gathering of cabinet members of plans to unilaterally roll back the power of public sector unions in the state. He "dropped the bomb," as Walker would describe it afterward, four days later.

The audacious proposal, to be known forever after as Act 10, required public employees to pay more for pension and health insurance benefits, but also banned most subjects of collective bargaining and placed obstacles to maintaining union membership.

The proposal laid bare the state's deep, at times intensely personal, political divisions as tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol. The month-long, round-the-clock occupation drew international attention, but failed to stop the bill.

A decade later, the aftershocks of one of the biggest political earthquakes in Wisconsin history continue to be felt. Taxes have been held in check, and state finances have improved. But public unions are vastly diminished and the state is more politically divided than ever.

Here are 10 stories from people who experienced the historic events firsthand.

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As it became evident that Republicans in the Legislature planned to rush through passage of Act 10, Democratic lawmakers, who held minorities …

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Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the architect of Act 10, may have been defeated by Democrat Tony Evers in 2018, but his successor hasn’t …

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Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees motivated Susan Cohen, a Madison middle school scienc…

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Former Sen. Dale Schultz described the Act 10 saga as a major component of the end of bipartisanship in the state Legislature — a rift that st…

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As the longest-serving labor leader in Wisconsin at the time of Act 10, Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews kept a close ey…

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Ten years after the introduction of Act 10 led to hundreds of thousands of protesters to descend on the state Capitol, protests and civil unre…

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For Ian’s Pizza, a staple of Madison’s food scene that now has locations in Milwaukee, Denver and Seattle, feeding Act 10 protesters helped pl…

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Looking back on the passage of Act 10 a decade ago, Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, said one of her most vivid memories is the tens of thousand…

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When the news about Act 10 broke, Madison middle school teacher Michele Ritt went to the Capitol, where a few hundred or so people had begun t…

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As a Capitol reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in early 2011, Jason Stein had a front row seat to the politics and protests surroun…

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