MADISON, Wis. — Federal judges struck down Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn legislative districts as unconstitutional on Monday, marking a victory for minority Democrats that could force the Legislature to redraw the maps.
The three-judge panel didn’t order any immediate changes to district boundaries, instead saying they would give state attorneys and the voters who challenged the old maps 45 days to offer suggestions.
State lawyers plan to appeal the 2-1 ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for now the decision offers hope for Democrats who have been in the minority for six years and lost more ground in this month’s elections. The lawsuit focuses on Assembly districts, but since Senate districts are based on the Assembly maps the ruling invalidates both chambers’ maps.
“The court has clearly indicated the map is unconstitutional and that Wisconsin citizens deserve a fair map,” said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized the lawsuit. “We’re confident this is the first step in democracy being restored to the people of Wisconsin.”
Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel, whose state Justice Department defended the boundaries, issued a statement saying the agency plans to appeal and the decision doesn’t affect the results of this month’s elections.
A spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald referred questions to justice department. Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s spokesman, Tom Evenson, had no immediate comment, saying only that Walker’s office was reviewing the decision.
Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos said Republican victories in Wisconsin are not because of redistricting.
“Republicans win elections because we have better candidates and a better message that continues to resonate with voters,” he said.
Republicans drew the maps in 2011 after they took full control of state government in the 2010 elections. They haven’t relinquished control of either house since. Assembly Republicans didn’t lose a seat and defeated a Democratic incumbent in this month’s elections to gain their largest majority in the chamber since 1957. Senate Republicans also didn’t lose a single seat and defeated a Democratic incumbent to gain their largest majority since 1971.
A dozen voters sued in July 2015, arguing the maps unconstitutionally discriminated against Democrats by diluting their voting power. They called it the worst example of gerrymandering — a term for dividing districts to gain an unfair advantage — in modern history.
One effect, plaintiff attorney Gerald Hebert argued during a trial in May, was to reduce the number of swing districts from 19 to 10. The plaintiffs also noted that under the new maps in 2012 Republicans won 60 of 99 Assembly seats even though Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote.
Attorneys for the state countered Wisconsin is trending Republican and argued there’s no legal way to measure gerrymandering. They added that partisanship should be expected when one party draws legislative boundaries.
The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to come up with a legal standard for deciding when redistricting becomes unconstitutional gerrymandering. Plaintiff attorneys offered the judges an equation that included measuring and comparing each party’s wasted votes in an election. State lawyers argued the equation lacked any constitutional basis and there was no way a court could measure gerrymandering.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Ripple and U.S. District Judge William Griesbach heard the case. Crabb was appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Griesbach by Republican President George W. Bush and Ripple by Republican President Ronald Reagan. Crabb and Ripple accepted the equation.
“We find that [the maps were] intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters throughout the decennial period by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats,” Ripple wrote for the majority. “We find that the discriminatory effect is not explained by the political geography of Wisconsin nor is it justified by a legitimate state interest.”
Griesbach wrote in dissent the Republicans’ maps were politically motivated but comply with traditional redistricting principles. Republicans likely would have retained legislative control in the 2012 and 2014 elections without the new maps, he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called Monday’s ruling “a historic victory.”
“Voters,” he said, “should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around.”