Tag Archives: district court

Wisconsin citizens want legislative maps redrawn before next state elections

Wisconsin citizens have asked a U.S. District Court to redraw state legislative maps in advance of the next round of elections.

The request comes after a federal trial that resulted in the state’s district maps being ruled unconstitutional for being an illegal partisan gerrymander.

“The court’s verdict last month was clear — Wisconsin’s legislative maps are unconstitutional, and the GOP majority violated the rights of Wisconsin’s citizens when they adopted the map,” stated Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit.

Chheda said on Dec. 21 the plaintiffs in the case “formally asked that the maps be replaced, so we can have free and fair elections in the state of Wisconsin. The citizens of Wisconsin should have a chance to elect a government which represents us.”

The recent ruling in Whitford v. Gill came after a May 2016 trial.

A majority of the federal three-judge panel overseeing the case ruled in favor of the 12 Wisconsin Democrats who filed suit more than a year ago.  The ruling represents the first time a map has been overturned by a federal court for being a political gerrymander.

In a separate filing this week, the state of Wisconsin — which lost the trial — asked for any further action in the District Court to be put on hold until its U.S. Supreme Court appeal is heard and decided.

The state wants the High Court to overturn the trial court’s decision and to allow the Legislature to redraw maps.

The citizen plaintiffs, in contrast, argue the redrawing process should take place during the appeal in order to ensure the maps are in place in a timely manner. The plaintiffs also asked the court to draw the maps, rather than allow another biased effort by a legislative majority to create the boundaries.

“Every Wisconsin citizen deserves the right to have their vote count,” said state Sen. Dale Schultz, a former Republican Majority Leader of the Wisconsin State Senate, who co-chairs the Fair Elections Project. “The plaintiffs won at trial, they won twice earlier in the process when the state tried to short-circuit this case, and now they are likely to win at the Supreme Court.”

“What happened in Wisconsin in 2011 was an egregious violation of our state’s moral values,” added Sen. Tim Cullen, a former Democratic Majority Leader of the Wisconsin State Senate, who serves as the other co-chair of the project. “Instead of voters choosing their elected officials, the Republican majority in Wisconsin decided they would entrench themselves in power despite the views of voters. The court has said clearly that will not stand.”

Filed in July 2015, the lawsuit demands district maps for the state Legislature be thrown out, calling the line-drawing process “secretive” and “partisan.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Peter Earle and Doug Poland as co-lead trial counsel, Prof. Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago Law School, Michele Odorizzi of Mayer Brown, and a team from the Campaign Legal Center, including Gerry Hebert and Ruth Greenwood.

Democrats urge DOJ to assist in overseeing Wisconsin elections

Dear Attorney General Lynch: As you are aware, Wisconsin, which we represent, is among 14 states that have adopted new voter restrictions in advance of the November 8 election.

The state’s 2011 voter identification law, one of the strictest in the country, has been repeatedly challenged in federal court due to its discriminatory effects on vulnerable populations’ voting rights.  Due to the law’s contentious nature and poor implementation, coupled with a political environment that is becoming increasingly intimidating, we are requesting the Department of Justice’s assistance in overseeing the state’s monitoring of the election, including by providing poll-monitoring services in Wisconsin.

In 2014, a U.S. district court noted that more than 300,000 Wisconsinites lacked the newly requisite form of identification, and that this population disproportionately included persons of color. Judge Lynn Adelman further observed that state officials “could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past,” casting serious doubt on the official rationale for the policy.

A second federal court determined earlier this summer that even the “safety net” built into the law to help voters who have trouble obtaining ID was a “wretched failure” that “disenfranchised citizens” who are “overwhelmingly African American and Latino.”

Deeming the provision unconstitutional, Judge James Peterson mandated changes in practice and public education to ensure that that process better serves all Wisconsinites with documentation challenges in obtaining identification so they can vote. Concurring with Judge Adelman, Judge Peterson also expressed “misgivings about whether the law actually promotes confidence and integrity,” and observed that prior to 2011, “Wisconsin had an exemplary election system that produced high levels of voter participation without significant irregularities.”

Unfortunately, since that court order in late July, we have continued to see how Wisconsin’s voter ID law puts the franchise of many Wisconsinites, particularly people of color, in real jeopardy. Over the last month, press reports have revealed that on numerous occasions, Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicle employees provided erroneous and incomplete information to potential voters who are unable to obtain IDs due to a lack of required documentation (like a birth certificate), despite their eligibility for alternative credentials.

These revelations led Judge Peterson to remark on October 12, “I’m very disappointed to see that the state really did nothing in response to my order,” noting that voters are “at the mercy of the DMV, and its staff wasn’t trained well enough to guide people through it.” We are deeply troubled by the prospect of such misinformation contributing to voter disenfranchisement in this election. While further scrutiny by the federal court has prompted state officials to institute additional training and public education efforts at the DMV, there is entirely too much at stake in the limited time left before the election to let this continue without additional oversight.

In addition to misinformation, we are also concerned about potential voter intimidation at the polling places, particularly in light of recent, high-profile rhetoric that alleges “election rigging.” National figures have suggested that there is widespread voter fraud in our country and have encouraged private citizens to monitor the voting behaviors of certain communities for potential misconduct.

Given the flawed efforts thus far by state officials to properly implement this law, with proof of demonstrably false information having been disseminated to voters just days before the election, we fear that irreparable harm may result—particularly to voters of color, who disproportionately bear the brunt of these policies and any Election Day intimidation efforts.

We ask the Department to provide any resources or assistance it can in order to help our state navigate these unsettling circumstances.  For example, the Department has historically provided poll monitors on Election Day to help ensure that all eligible voters will be permitted to register and exercise their fundamental right to participate in our democracy. We therefore urge the Department of Justice to utilize any available election monitoring resources to ensure voters in Wisconsin are able to safely access the polls.

The right to elect our public representatives is unrivaled in its importance to a fully functioning democracy.  With few days remaining until the election, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to limit the amount of harm caused to our state’s voters.

Thank you for your consideration of this request and for the Department of Justice’s ongoing efforts to ensure the fairness of all elections in our country.

Sioux tribe sues after work for Dakota Access Pipeline destroys sacred sites

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed an emergency motion on Sept. 4 for a temporary restraining order to prevent further destruction of the tribe’s sacred sites by Dakota Access Pipeline.

On Saturday, Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners brazenly used bulldozers to destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts,” tribal chairman David Archambault II said. “They did this on a holiday weekend, one day after we filed court papers identifying these sacred sites. The desecration of these ancient places has already caused the Standing Rock Sioux irreparable harm. We’re asking the court to halt this path of destruction.”

After the initial destruction Sept. 3, Dakota Access Pipeline returned to the area and dug up additional grounds in the pre-dawn hours Sept. 4, Archambault said.

The motion seeks to prevent additional construction work on an area 2 miles west of North Dakota Highway 1806, and within 20 miles of Lake Oahe until a judge rules on the tribe’s previous motion to stop construction.

That motion is based on the Standing Rock Sioux’s assertion that it was not properly consulted before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked approval of the pipeline project.

A decision on the case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is expected by Sept. 9.

“Destroying the tribe’s sacred places over a holiday weekend, while the judge is considering whether to block the pipeline, shows a flagrant disregard for the legal process,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux. “The Tribe has been seeking to vindicate its rights peacefully through the courts. But Dakota Access Pipeline used evidence submitted to the court as their roadmap for what to bulldoze. That’s just wrong.”

Thousands of people from more than 200 Native Tribes have joined the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to protect their lands, waters and sacred sites from harm during construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline.

If built, the line would carry a half-million barrels of crude oil across the tribe’s treaty lands each day.

Wisconsin Unites for Marriage coalition launches

A new statewide coalition aimed at securing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in Wisconsin launched on Aug. 7, less than 20 days before a federal appeals court will hear arguments on the issue.

The Wisconsin Unites for Marriage Coalition launched as a partnership of the ACLU of Wisconsin, Fair Wisconsin and Freedom to Marry.

The coalition representatives vowed an unprecedented grassroots public education campaign with the goal of winning the freedom to marry for all couples.

Launch celebrations were taking place on Aug. 7 in Appleton, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee, with religious leaders, civil rights advocates, attorneys and also the couples who are suing the state for marriage equality.

In a news release, Katie Belanger of Fair Wisconsin said, “This is the first time since the 2006 campaign against the constitutional amendment that we have had a diverse statewide coalition working together to achieve the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. We are thrilled to join forces with Wisconsin’s leaders in the business and faith communities, and state and national partners in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, as we move Wisconsin forward together.”

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of ACLU Wisconsin, added, “Wisconsin Unites for Marriage gives a voice to couples, their friends and families, and everyone committed to freedom and equality. You don’t have to be a plaintiff or lawyer to be heard as we make history together.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin and the ACLU national are representing same-sex couples demanding the right to marry in the state or recognition of their out-of-state marriages. They are challenging the constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages that was approved by voters in 2006.

In early June, a federal district judge in Madison overturned the amendment, a decision that for a few days cleared the way for more than 500 gay and lesbian couples to marry in the state.

The weddings ended as Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican who is not seeking re-election in November, pursued an appeal.

That appeal is now before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, with oral argument set for Aug. 26.

“My partner Katy and I have been together for over 25 years and want very much to get married. To be honest, before we won the case in federal court, we didn’t realize how much marriage meant – mostly because we could never let ourselves imagine it, because it wasn’t a reality for us for so many years,” said Judi Trampf, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Her partner, Katy Heyning, added, “But now more than ever, I think about what would happen if something happened to Judi. In the eyes of the legal system, we’d be little more than two people who knew each other. After 25 years of commitment, living together and loving each other – we’d be nothing.”

As the coalition was announced to the public, its website went live at www.wisconsinunites.org. 

The site invites people to share their marriage equality stories, offers freedom to marry facts and announces opportunities to volunteer.

Grocery Manufacturers lobby seeks to block GMO-labeling law in Vermont

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a multi-billion dollar lobbying group representing more than 300 food, pesticide and pharmaceutical companies, has filed a federal lawsuit against Vermont seeking to pre-empt enactment of a law requiring mandatory labeling of foods sold at retail containing genetically modified organisms.

The measure, H.112, also prohibits food companies from labeling GMO foods as “natural” or “all natural.”

The suit asks a judge to overturn the law and describes it as “a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers.” The lawsuit claims that food made with GMOs is safe and says the Vermont law exceeds the state’s authority under the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that food from genetically modified plants is not materially different from other food. But critics of GMO foods consider them environmentally suspect and a possible health threat.

Maine and Connecticut also have adopted GMO label laws, but their laws require neighboring states to follow suit before their requirements go into effect. New York lawmakers are working on a GMO labeling bill, as well. And if it becomes law, Connecticut’s law would automatically take effect.

The Vermont law, due to take effect in two years, calls for the labeling of processed GMO foods and for retailers to post signs on displays of unpackaged genetically engineered foods. It also sets a civil penalty of $1,000 per day per product for “false certification.” The entire product, not each individual item or package, would be subject to the penalty.

Restaurants would be exempt from the requirements.

Responding to the lawsuit, Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, said, “Today’s move by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to prevent Vermont from requiring food companies to disclose the truth about what they put in the billions of dollars’ worth of food they sell to consumers is a desperate attempt to protect corporate shareholder profits at the expense of consumers’ rights and health.”

Cummins added, “More than 60 other countries have either banned GMOs, or require mandatory labeling of foods that contain them. Consumers in the U.S. have every reasonable right to the same information that consumers in other countries have about foods and ingredients that have not been subjected to independent, pre-market safety testing.”

Judge rules that VA can’t deny disability benefits to lesbian vet

A judge in Los Angeles ruled on Aug. 29 that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits given the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said that a federal code defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional “under rational basis scrutiny” since the high court’s decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.

“The court finds that the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages from veterans’ benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality,” in the code, Marshall wrote in her four-page ruling.

The Department of Veterans Affairs denied an application from veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse seeking additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to receive. Cooper-Harris suffers from multiple sclerosis and receives disability benefits.

She and Maggie Cooper-Harris got married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex unions were legal in the state. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had said previously the couple would receive about $150 more a month in disability payments, and Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for about $1,200 a month in survivor’s benefits if her wife died.

The Justice Department had asked for Cooper-Harris’ case to be tossed out on the grounds that veterans’ claims can only be heard by an administrative Board of Veterans’ Appeals. But Marshall said the case could move forward.

The law on VA benefits specifically defines spouse and surviving spouse as someone of the opposite sex, which has prevented same-sex married couples from accessing such benefits as enhanced disability or pension payments.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. earlier this month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said no court had deemed the provision unconstitutional, nor has Congress taken up a bill to change the definition of spouse. He noted, however, that if spousal definitions were determined to be unconstitutional, the agency would be prepared to update its policies.

The Defense Department has said that same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3.

Senate confirms gay nominee to federal bench

The U.S. Senate on March 15 confirmed Michael Fitzgerald to the bench in the federal District Court for Central California.

A simple majority was needed to confirm the gay man. The vote went 91-6, after a four-month delay due to partisan politics.

The “no” votes came from Republicans Roy Blunt of Missouri, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and David Vitter of Louisiana.

Fitzgerald, in a statement, expressed gratitude for his nomination and his confirmation and said, “I look forward to serving the people of the Central District of California.”

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, who nominated Fitzgerald to become a nominee, called his confirmation historic.

“It really shouldn’t take this long to confirm such a highly-qualified nominee like Mr. Fitzgerald, especially because this seat has been designated a judicial emergency,” she said.

Fitzgerald is a former assistant U.S. attorney and currently a lawyer with Corbin, Fitzgerald and Athey.

Fitzgerald is the third openly gay Article III federal judge nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, following J. Paul Oetken and Alison Nathan. In addition, lesbian Deborah Batts has served as a federal District Judge for the Southern District of New York since 1994.

Obama nominated Fitzgerald in July 2011, saying, “I am honored to nominate Michael Walter Fitzgerald to the U.S. District Court. His impressive career stands as a testament to his formidable intellect and integrity. I am confident he will serve the people of California with distinction on the District Court bench.”

Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said Fitzgerald “joins a still very small but growing group of openly LGBT federal judges, and we commend the Obama administration for making sure these esteemed positions are open to all qualified Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Download a PDF of the current issue of Wisconsin Gazette and join our Facebook community.