By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge will launch a three-day trial this week to decide whether legislative district boundaries that Wisconsin Republicans drew four years ago amount to an unconstitutional attempt to consolidate power.
Twelve voters who support Democrats filed a lawsuit last summer alleging state Assembly district boundaries created in 2012 were unfairly designed to help GOP candidates win and hold seats. They maintain the maps dilute voters’ power, but state attorneys counter that partisanship is a lawful motive for redrawing the boundaries.
Here’s some key information heading into the proceedings, which begin Tuesday:
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
Republicans took complete control of state government in 2011, seizing both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. One of the GOP’s first tasks was redrawing legislative districts to reflect population changes, a process lawmakers undertake every decade.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleges the Republicans drew up the maps in secret, dividing Democratic supporters and consolidating Republican voters in the new Assembly districts. The new boundaries have led to overwhelming victories for GOP candidates, the plaintiffs argue, helping the GOP maintain legislative control.
The lawsuit also contends the new maps, which the plaintiffs call “one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in modern history,” discriminate against Democrats, violating the U.S. Constitution’s free speech and equal protection guarantees.
They’ve asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to declare all the boundaries for all 99 Assembly districts unconstitutional and establish new boundaries herself if the Legislature doesn’t do it.
WHAT’S THE REPUBLICAN RESPONSE?
Attorneys for the state Department of Justice, which is controlled by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, are defending the law. They insist the new boundaries are in line with prior redistricting plans and comply with redistricting principles such as equal population and compactness. They also argue that partisan intent during redistricting is legal and the evidence won’t show any partisan motivation beyond what would be normally expected when a political body draws boundaries.
HOW DO YOU MEASURE WHETHER DISTRICT BOUNDARIES ARE UNFAIR?
That’s the biggest question Crabb faces.
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t been able to come up with a legal standard for determining when redistricting becomes unconstitutional gerrymandering.
The plaintiffs have asked Crabb to use an equation they created to define what they call “the efficiency gap,” defined as votes for a given party in excess of what’s needed to win in a district or votes cast by the losing party divided by total votes cast in a district. If the gap is small and roughly equivalent to past gaps, the plaintiffs assert, the map is constitutional. Large gaps require a presumption of unconstitutionality, they say.
The DOJ argues the equation has no constitutional basis and a large gap doesn’t prove extreme gerrymandering.
DOES THE TRIAL INVOLVE A JURY?
No. Crabb will preside over what’s known as a bench trial, meaning she will make the final ruling. It’s unlikely she’ll hand down a decision at the proceedings’ conclusion; typically, judges in bench trials issue written verdicts weeks or months later.
WHAT ARE THE STAKES?
If the districts are found unconstitutional and Crabb redraws the boundaries before the November elections, it could give Assembly Democrats hope of making gains in the chamber and perhaps a chance at taking over the majority in a future election.
If Crabb rules the districts are constitutional, it would further cement Republican legislative control.
Either way, the losing side almost certainly will appeal.