U.S. court overturns Wisconsin legislative maps

The Wisconsin Gazette

A federal three-judge panel on Nov. 21 ruled that Wisconsin’s legislative maps are unconstitutional.

The ruling came in a case filed by 12 Wisconsin Democrats who sued more than a year ago and an appeal is likely.

A press statement said this is the first time a map has been overturned by a federal court for being gerrymandered for political reasons.

“The ruling in Whitford v. Gill (formerly Whitford v Nichol) is a stunning victory for democracy,” said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Election Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit. “The citizens of Wisconsin will now have a chance to elect a government which represents us.”

“This is a victory for democracy — not just for Democrats, but for all Wisconsin citizens,” stated Sen. Dale Schultz, a former Republican Majority Leader of the Wisconsin State Senate who co-chairs the Fair Elections Project. “Everyone benefits from a fair elections process that moderates the worst tendencies of extremists in both parties.

“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 served as the other co-chair. “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 today that will not stand.”

Originally filed in July 2015, the lawsuit demanded the district maps for the state Legislature be thrown out, calling the line-drawing process “secretive” and “partisan,” and the maps unconstitutional for overly advantaging one party.

The plaintiffs said the lawsuit fulfills a call issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in previous cases for a standard to measure how much partisan gerrymandering is allowable and shows how Wisconsin’s map is “far outside acceptable redistricting norms.”

A trial was conducted before the federal panel in Madison in May.

“I’m very pleased with this decision,” said lead plaintiff Bill Whitford. “It is truly historic. As a lifelong Democrat, the court’s decision recognizes the power of my voice and the voices of all other Democrats across the state. This decision could have a monumental impact in ensuring that voters’ voices are heard across the nation, regardless of party. I want fair elections, where the voters have the power, not a gerrymander for either side created by self-interested politicians. That’s what today’s decision is all about.”

“Today is a historic day and I am thrilled with the result not only for our plaintiffs, but for all Wisconsin voters,” stated lead trial attorney Peter Earle. “This decision will finally give voters in Wisconsin the power they deserve to shape their democracy. Now a fairer system will be created here in Wisconsin so all voters, not just a select few, will be able to have their voices heard.”

Gerry Hebert, director of the Voting Rights and Redistricting Program at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., had this to say: “This is truly a monumental victory for the plaintiffs in this case, but more importantly this is an historic moment for our nation and the betterment of democracy,” said . The Campaign Legal Center joined the case in the months leading up to trial.

The court did not rule on a remedy, ordering further rounds of briefing and potentially testimony in the coming weeks.

Reaction to the ruling …

• “The Department of Justice is evaluating the court’s 159-page decision and we plan to appeal,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. “This 2-1 decision does not affect the results of this month’s election or any prior election and legislative district boundaries remain unchanged until the court rules on any remedy.”

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said:  “Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around. Today’s ruling is a victory for democracy and the people of Wisconsin.

“Once again, a court has declared the Republican’s 2011 legislative maps unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for voters and a further admonishment of the extremely slanted maps that trample the democratic will of the people of Wisconsin.

“I want to thank the voters who came forward to bring this challenge and who bravely stood up for not only their own voting rights, but for the rights of all Wisconsinites.”

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said: “Today’s ruling is an overwhelming victory for Wisconsin voters.  The citizens of our state have demonstrated their shifting opinions over the years by voting for candidates and majorities of both parties.  These unconstitutional maps drawn in 2011 represent a direct attack on that freedom, and a successful attempt by Republicans to avoid responsiveness and accountability to their own constituents.  Now that it is clear that these actions were unconstitutional, I am hopeful that the courts will move forward in implementing maps that will better represent the geography of our state and the will of its people.”

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Under Republican rule for the last six years, we have seen a deliberate and concerted effort to rig Wisconsin’s elections.  They made it harder for students to register to vote, deliberately disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters with an unnecessary Voter ID law, eliminated Wisconsin’s non-partisan elections watch-dog and now it is confirmed, they drew Wisconsin’s legislative districts so regardless of the votes cast, Republicans would maintain legislative control.

“Today’s ruling is a win for all voters in Wisconsin.  No matter where you live or what your political beliefs are — every Wisconsinite’s vote should be valued, protected and treated equally and fairly under the law.  I applaud the court’s decision today and it should serve as a strong reminder to my Republican colleagues that justice always prevails and the power truly belongs to the people, not donors, lobbyists or conservative special interests.”

• Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, remarked: “There are only two things that are certain about this case:  it’s unprecedented and it isn’t over. The ruling can and should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Wisconsin has competitive legislative districts that meet every traditional principle of redistricting. Republicans win elections because we have better candidates and a better message that continues to resonate with the voters.

“The court has essentially created a brand new test that is significantly flawed and is an encroachment by the court into the legislature’s duties. The new standard ignores Wisconsin’s political geography where Democrats are naturally clustered in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison.  We remain fully confident that the maps were constitutional when adopted, and will remain so when this case is finally concluded.”

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said: “Today’s court ruling recognizes the Republican abuse of power as going too far in shutting out our neighbors’ voices in elections.

“Attempts to suppress the public’s voice by politically gerrymandering districts in order to weaken the voting power of targeted groups is a betrayal of our fundamental freedoms and values. The ruling today should serve as strong warning to Wisconsin and as a clear precedent to other states. If we were outsiders taking a real look at the flawed, unfair, and undemocratic voting system that one party rule has thrust upon our state, I am certain the majority of us would be shocked and outraged.

Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said: “We’ve known for years that Republican politicians have abused their power to rig Wisconsin elections in their favor. From disenfranchising voters, limiting polling places, restricting voting hours and drawing unconstitutional legislative districts, Republican politicians have waged an unprecedented attack on our democratic values. Every voter deserves to have their voice heard and I am relieved that our judicial system is helping to hold Republicans accountable for their unconstitutional partisan power grabs.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning added: “The Republican 2011 legislative maps – created in secret – have been declared unconstitutional by the courts. This is a historic victory for our democracy and all of the voters in the great state of Wisconsin.

“I look forward to the creation of new district lines that respect Wisconsin’s tradition of fair and open government and ensure that all of the people and communities in our state are represented equally.”