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Conservatives in Wisconsin are opposing the state Supreme Court’s efforts to redraft legislative voting districts after a liberal majority declared the current maps invalid due to the presence of long-standing “municipal islands,” which the court had upheld as recently as 2022.
In a December 2023 ruling that elicited strong dissent from the three conservative justices on the court, a majority of four justices determined that the current maps for state assembly and senate voting districts violated a provision in the Wisconsin Constitution mandating “contiguous” districts, Legal Newsline reported.
The ruling was made in a case initiated by Democratic voters on the same day Justice Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in, which shifted the court’s majority from conservative to liberal. Justice Protasiewicz had won her election with a campaign that received tens of millions of dollars in contributions from Democratic donors across the country, the outlet reported.
The majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court chose not to address allegations that the maps provided an unfair advantage to Republican candidates. However, they did identify an issue with the districts, specifically the presence of excessive “municipal islands,” which refers to territory assigned to one district that is entirely enclosed within another.
These islands stem from historical municipal annexation, and conservative critics of the ruling point out that the majority of them have minimal or no voters residing within them. For instance, in the Racine voting district, two islands consist of a golf course and a dog park. Only three of these islands have a population of more than 1,000 voters, said the outlet.
“This is not what courts should be doing,” said Luke Berg, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative group. “It’s a fig leaf for what they really want to do, which is redraw the voting districts.”
The outlet reported further:
The fight over Wisconsin’s voting districts has raged since the 2020 census, when the Republican-controlled legislature proposed a new map and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed it. The Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened, first imposing a redistricting plan devised by Gov. Evers, and after the U.S. Supreme Court struck that down as a racial gerrymander, a plan drawn up by the legislature.
The then-conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted a “least change” principle under which maps would retain as many existing voters as possible. The new majority threw out that idea as “unworkable,” instead saying it will judge maps according to a number of criteria including municipal boundaries, population and federal civil rights law.
The state’s highest court has given the legislature several weeks to devise new maps before selecting one.
The court’s majority mentioned that it intends to reexamine the issue of whether the maps displayed impermissible partisanship, referring to it as an “important and unresolved legal question” that will be taken into account when endorsing new maps. Congressional voting districts are not part of the current legal dispute, even though Wisconsin is likely to be a pivotal battleground state in the upcoming presidential election.
The majority’s decision prompted a strong dissent from Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler, who specifically named her liberal colleagues and accused them of using drastic measures to achieve their objective of pushing for another redistricting, just a year after the same court had endorsed a different voting map.
“This deal was sealed on election night,” Ziegler wrote. “The court of four’s outcome-based, end-justifies-the-means judicial activist approach conflates the balance of governmental power the people separated into three separate branches, to but one: the judiciary.”
Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley echoed the chief justice in her dissent: “Riding a Trojan horse named Contiguity, the majority breaches the lines of demarcation separating the judiciary from the political branches in order to transfer power from one political party to another.”