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Justices reject rules fast-tracking redistricting lawsuits

May 14, 2021 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday rejected a Republican request that all state redistricting lawsuits start in the high court.

In its order denying the request, the court recapped the arguments for and against the Republicans’ request, but it offered little explanation for its denial, saying only that the rule changes wouldn’t help the justices weigh any redistricting challenges.

The court cautioned, though, that its denial doesn’t mean it would refuse to hear an appeal from a lower court ruling or reject a request to take a case directly. The order did not say how each justice voted.

Every 10 years, the Legislature redraws legislative and congressional district boundaries to reflect population changes. The process is vulnerable to partisan gerrymandering that can solidify a party’s control of the Legislature for a decade.

An Associated Press analysis in 2017 found four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or Assembly districts than Democratic ones. Battleground states, including Wisconsin, were among those with significant Republican advantages in their U.S. or state House races. All had districts drawn by Republicans after the last Census in 2010.

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that it has no role in determining whether lines were improperly gerrymandered in rejecting challenges to GOP-drawn congressional maps in North Carolina and a Democratic-drawn district in Maryland.

Republicans currently control Wisconsin’s Legislature and will draw the maps, but the boundaries must win Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ signature to become law, setting the stage for gridlock. When state government is divided, courts typically must resolve disputes.

Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court. Conscious of their advantage, Republican legislative leaders and allied groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, asked the court last year to draft rules that call for all redistricting challenges to begin with the justices rather than in lower courts. Their proposal also would have allowed the justices to draw the maps.

Opponents countered that the change was a blatant partisan attempt to tip the scales toward GOP-drawn maps.

The proposal met with skepticism from even the conservative justices during a hearing in January. Then-Chief Justice Patience Roggensack noted that the state Supreme Court already can take any redistricting case directly and that it lacks the staff to draw new political boundaries.

Conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty represented the requesters. The firm’s president, Rick Esenberg, stressed in a statement that the court affirmed it has jurisdiction over redistricting challenges. He added that the justices previously said a rule would be helpful in assessing redistricting matters.

Friday’s order includes footnotes that indicate the court explored changing procedural rules for redistricting cases beginning in the early 2000s but ultimately took no action.

Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm that represented the requesters, didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment on Friday’s order.

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, one of the groups that opposed the request, said in a statement that the high court made the right decision to deny “a ridiculously partisan proposed rule.”

“The legislature should now commit to an open, honest, transparent, and fair process to draw and approve district maps for the next decade,” he said. “The people deserve nothing less.”

The denial marks the second defeat in as many months for Republicans as they prepare to draw the maps.

A Dane County judge ruled in April that GOP legislative leaders illegally hired private attorneys at taxpayer expense to represent them in redistricting lawsuits. Judge Stephen Ehlke noted no one has drawn any maps yet or filed a lawsuit challenging them.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter: https://twitter.com/trichmond1