By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican-backed push to fast-track redistricting lawsuits in the Wisconsin Supreme Court met with skepticism during a Thursday hearing, as the court’s conservative chief justice questioned why the proposal was necessary and wondered how the thinly staffed court could be expected to draw maps.
The state’s highest court is deciding whether to adopt a rule that would require any state lawsuits filed over the maps to start in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, rather than lower courts. The hearing is one of the earliest legal salvos in what could be a long fight over which maps finally get enacted.
Redistricting is the once-a-decade task of drawing new political boundary lines for the state Legislature and congressional districts. The Legislature, controlled by Republicans, draws the maps but still must win the approval of the governor — currently Democrat Tony Evers. When the government is divided, the courts typically must intervene to resolve disputes.
Those who support the proposal to have redistricting disputes go straight to the state Supreme Court include the Republican leaders of the Legislature, Wisconsin’s five GOP members of Congress and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. They say the rule would ensure that state courts, instead of federal ones, resolve such disputes.
The opponents include both Republican and Democratic voters and former office holders, groups formed to draw nonpartisan maps, law professors from Harvard University, Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters, the Wisconsin Association for Justice, Common Cause Wisconsin and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. Nearly 2,000 comments in opposition have been submitted.
Opponents generally argue that the proposed change would benefit Republicans, allow lawsuits to be brought without proper fact-finding in lower courts, and sew distrust among the public, which might come to think the state Supreme Court is on the side of Republicans.
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack asked supporters of the proposal why it was necessary, given that the court can already choose to bypass lower courts and take a redistricting case directly if it wants to. She also questioned the practicality of a part of the proposed rule that would allow the state Supreme Court to draw maps.
“Drawing maps would take a huge staff. We don’t have them,” Roggensack said. “I don’t know how in the world you think the court could ever draw the map. … This rule makes the court proactive, that’s just not how we operate.”
The rule was proposed by former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who is represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group that has led the charge against Democrats and their policies. The head of the group, the attorney Rick Esenberg, said the court would be responding to maps drawn by the Legislature and not be a “cartographer.”
Esenberg, Jensen and Misha Tseytlin, attorney for the Republican members of Congress, said it was important for legal challenges to remain in state courts, rather than federal ones, and that a process be established to allow for quick resolutions.
But Justice Jill Karofsky questioned the merits of putting the challenges on a “rocket docket,” saying redistricting is one of the most fact-heavy issues that could come before the court. Not having a factual record in lower courts could lead to complications, she said.
The state Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected similar attempts to hear redistricting lawsuits, deferring instead to federal courts. The court in 2002 declined to hear such cases. Roggensack and Justice Annette Ziegler, both conservatives, rejected making rule changes 12 years ago.
The court is controlled 4-3 by conservatives, but Justice Brian Hagedorn has sided with the liberals recently in several prominent cases.
The state Supreme Court will discuss the proposal privately and issue a decision later. The Legislature will vote on new maps later this year.
Wisconsin’s current maps were drawn by Republicans in 2011 and helped cement their party’s legislative majority over the past decade.
Liberals sued, challenging them as being illegally gerrymandered, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the maps, ruling that federal courts can’t consider allegations that election maps unfairly favor one political party over another.