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GOP gives law firms blank check for Wisconsin fight (UPDATE)

By Todd Richmond

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers voted Thursday to hire two law firms to represent legislators in a legal fight over redistricting, a potentially expensive move on an issue that has already cost taxpayers millions.

The Assembly and Senate’s organization committees both voted to hire Chicago-based Kirkland and Ellis and Madison-based Bell Giftos St. John.

The hiring was approved on party-line votes. Republicans, who are in the majority in the state Legislature, brushed aside Democrats’ complaints that the hires are a waste of taxpayer money. Democrats also complained about a vote that took place behind closed doors by paper ballot.

It’s unclear how much hiring the law firms might cost. The committee ballots made no mention of costs or limiting the firms’ expenses.

A dozen voters filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 challenging the Republican-drawn maps, contending they unconstitutionally consolidated GOP power and discriminated against Democrats. A three-judge panel agreed with the voters in November and last month ordered the Legislature to redraw the maps.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, is preparing to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s representing the state Elections Commission, but not the legislators. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Republicans want their own lawyers so they’ll have a say in the appeal.
She said the firms will be asked to draft a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to overturn the three-judge panel’s decision.

The long-running legal battle over redistricting has cost the state at least $2.1 million so far. Those costs stem from a separate lawsuit Democrats and immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera filed in 2011. That lawsuit resulted in a panel of federal judges ordering two Assembly districts in Milwaukee be adjusted because the lines unfairly weakened Hispanics’ voting rights.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, both Democrats, said hiring outside attorneys is a waste of money.

“Republicans have already wasted too much time and taxpayer money trying to justify their unconstitutional election rigging efforts,” Shilling said. “Rather than throwing more money at high-priced Republican lawyers, we should be investing our scarce taxpayer resources in Wisconsin classrooms, roads and communities.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defended the hiring decision in a statement, saying Republicans have the right to retain outside attorneys.

“We must ensure that every essential argument is heard before the court to make clear that Wisconsin has legislative maps that are constitutional,” he said.

Barca sent a letter to Vos complaining about voting in secret rather than in an open meeting. He accused Republicans of trying to duck public scrutiny in his statement to reporters.

Barca challenged Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke during an Assembly rules committee meeting Thursday afternoon to hold a public meeting on hiring the firms. Steineke said the Assembly organizational panel has run by paper ballot for the last two legislative sessions. Steineke declined to answer reporters’ questions as he left the meeting.

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project that launched the lawsuit challenging the boundaries, said Republicans should stop trying to seek partisan advantage and redraw the maps in a process that’s open to the public.

Former Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John, who served under Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, works at Bell Giftos St. John.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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