By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A judge ruled Thursday that Republican leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature illegally hired private taxpayer-funded attorneys to represent them in anticipation of legal challenges over redistricting because there are no pending lawsuits over maps that have yet to be drawn.
Four Madison teachers, including the current and incoming teachers union president, argued that state law does not allow legislative leaders to hire attorneys outside the state Department of Justice before a lawsuit has been filed. The Legislature has yet to begin the redistricting process.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu entered into contracts in December and January with two outside law firms to handle the redistricting process, including any future lawsuits. The contracts allowed for spending of more than $1 million in taxpayer money to the two law firms.
Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke ruled Thursday that the contracts are void because Vos and LeMahieu were not authorized to hire the law firms. LeMahieu and Vos did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The Republican leaders hired attorneys Adam Mortara and Consovoy McCarthy with a Washington-area law firm that represented former President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.
Under that contract, the state began paying $30,000 a month starting in January to cover consulting. The monthly fee would have jumped to $200,000 a month in July or when a lawsuit was filed, whichever came first.
They also hired former Wisconsin Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John at the Madison firm Bell Giftos St. John. His contract calls for him and his colleagues to be paid an hourly rate of $375.
The lawmakers argued that the Wisconsin Constitution gave them authority to hire the attorneys and that the contracts were lawful. But the judge ruled that neither the constitution nor state law gave the Legislature the authority to hire the outside attorneys for redistricting given that there is no pending lawsuit over drawing of the maps.
Had the Legislature intended to give leaders the power to hire attorneys for lawsuits that have yet to be filed, it could have specified that power in the law, but it does not currently exist, the judge said.
The judge ruled that the contracts were void from when they were first entered into and barred any future payments.
“They paid no attention to the law and hired another Republican law firm from Washington, D.C., to pay thousands of dollars a month and a million dollars this year on a lawsuit that doesn’t yet exist,” said attorney Lester Pines, who represented the teachers in the case. “The (law) doesn’t give them the authority to do that but they don’t care.”
Pines frequently represents Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers, and their interests.
The Legislature is tasked every 10 years with drawing new maps for congressional and state legislative district boundaries. Republicans control the Legislature, but their maps have to be signed by Democratic Gov.
Tony Evers to become law. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, lawsuits are expected.
Ten years ago, Republicans passed maps that were signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, helping to cement GOP control of the Legislature over the past decade. Numerous lawsuits were filed over those maps that lasted for years; they resulted in the adjustment of boundaries for two Assembly districts on Milwaukee’s south side.