Wisconsin High Court Adopts “Least Change” Approach to Redistricting

On November 30, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued its first major ruling related to this cycle of redistricting in Wisconsin. The Republican-led Legislature passed its proposed congressional and state legislative maps along party lines in early November. Governor Tony Evers (D) vetoed those maps in mid-November and has called for the state to adopt alternative maps drafted by his “People’s Maps Commission.”

The court’s ruling addressed several key issues in its approach to redistricting. Adopted by the justices 4-3 along ideological lines, the ruling is generally a “win” for Wisconsin Republicans. Attorneys representing legislative leaders had asked the court to adopt a “least change” approach and to reject “partisan balance” or “political unfairness” as criteria for new maps, and the majority agreed. Now, the parties to the case are preparing and providing legal briefs and proposed maps to the court, with trial dates set aside in January if necessary.

Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority, while Justice Rebecca Dallet authored a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky. The majority opinion emphasized that the U.S. Supreme Court has found no legal standard by which to assess the partisan fairness of proposed maps, and as such, “Claims of political unfairness in the maps present political questions, not legal ones … and therefore must be resolved through the political process and not by the judiciary.”

Meanwhile, Justice Dallet’s dissenting opinion criticized the majority’s ruling, arguing that it “effectively insulates future maps from being challenged as extreme partisan gerrymanders.” Justice Brian Hagedorn filed a concurring opinion in the case, generally agreeing with the majority but arguing that the court could use standards such as “communities of interest” that are not strictly legal requirements when evaluating proposed maps.

States must update their political maps every 10 years following the completion of the U.S. Census. Because Wisconsin’s Legislature and Gov. Evers were unable to come to an agreement, the issue has gone to court. Several state and federal lawsuits were filed over the last few months in anticipation of this. Federal judges have signaled that they will wait for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to issue its final rulings before deciding whether any of the federal claims can proceed.

For additional coverage of redistricting in Wisconsin, see the articles below: