By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE (AP) – Wisconsin has spent nearly $1 million defending itself against a federal lawsuit that challenged whether the state’s new election maps were drawn constitutionally, a total that officials said could rise if the case is appealed.
The state Department of Justice spent $925,000 defending the Wisconsin elections board, department spokeswoman Dana Brueck told The Associated Press exclusively. The amount covers legal costs and fees for special counsel through mid-May.
The total bill could increase to $1.6 million if the state also must pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees, a decision that’s pending. Costs also could rise if the Justice Department appeals the outcome of the lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The $925,000 figure drew criticism from several Democratic lawmakers. They said the lawsuit could have been prevented if Republicans simply had included them in the map-drawing process.
“It’s a remarkable amount of money,” said Peter Barca, the Assembly minority leader. “Had they worked with us, if we had an open, transparent process, this could have been avoided.”
However, a top Republican lawmaker countered lawmakers did what they were supposed to do.
“Our state constitution requires new district maps every 10 years to reflect changing population, and that’s exactly what the Legislature delivered,” state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald said.
The issue centers on election maps that define the boundaries of Wisconsin voting districts. The boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts.
The latest maps were produced by GOP lawmakers, who shut Democrats out of the process and instead drew up the maps in secret. The Republicans passed the maps last year in a GOP-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed them into law.
Democrats quickly countered with a federal lawsuit claiming the maps violated the U.S. Constitution by shifting hundreds of thousands of voters into new districts unnecessarily. An immigrant-rights group also sued, alleging the new voting boundaries weakened Hispanics’ voting power by separating blocs of Latino voters into different districts.
The lawsuits, which eventually were consolidated, sought to prevent the state Government Accountability Board from conducting elections based on the new maps. The Department of Justice provided the Government Accountability Board’s legal defense.
The panel of three federal judges that heard the suit frequently criticized Republican lawmakers for their lack of transparency in creating the maps. Still, the judges ruled the only border that had to be adjusted was one dividing two Milwaukee districts. That adjustment was wrapped up in mid-April.
The panel’s ruling let stand 130 out of 132 newly redrawn legislative districts as well as all eight congressional districts. However, the Justice Department still is considering whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, even if doing so could subject approved districts to renewed scrutiny.
“We wanted to make sure we left our options open,” Brueck said in an email.
Included in the judges’ decision was an order that plaintiffs and defendants bear their own costs. However, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are asking the court to have the defendants cover their costs, which could be about $700,000.
Doug Poland, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the statute under which they sued expressly provides that the prevailing party is entitled to have its attorneys’ costs paid by the losing party.
However, the Justice Department argues the court already issued a fair ruling holding both parties responsible for their own costs. It also said if the court were to amend that judgment, the defense could argue some of its fees should be covered because they were incurred in defending in a number of frivolous plaintiff allegations.
While the court has yet to rule on that issue, Democratic state Sen. Mark Miller criticized Republicans for making the entire lawsuit inevitable in the first place. He said the $925,000 already spent could have been used to help Wisconsin crime victims rather than to defend poorly produced maps.
“Because they rammed through a bill crafted behind closed doors, Wisconsin citizens had to file a lawsuit and the Department of Justice had to defend the Legislature’s abuse of power,” he said in an email.