By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — In a blow to Gov. Tony Evers’ political hopes, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s previous (4-3) ruling approving the Democrat’s political maps.
The high court’s 7-2 decision was not only a rejection of Evers’ race-based state redistricting plan, but a rebuke of the majority opinion from the state court’s three liberals and the “conservative” justice who often votes with them.
“We agree that the (Wisconsin Supreme Court) committed legal errors in its application of decisions of this Court regarding the relationship between the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and the (Voting Rights Act),” Wednesday’s ruling states.
In granting the petition, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses “the imposition of the Governor’s State Assembly and Senate maps” and remands the case back to the state court to straighten up its mess. It’s not clear when the court will take up the order and what it will do, but it will have to act soon. Political nomination papers are due by June. 1.
Wisconsin Supreme Court “swing vote” Justice Brian Hagedorn, who ran as a conservative, wrote the majority opinion issued on Mach 3 that gave Evers’ and Democrats their short-lived legal win. In approving Evers’ redistricting proposal, Hagedorn wrote, “No other proposal comes close” to following the “least change approach” to the maps.
Instead of drawing up new maps after Evers’ vetoed the Republican-controlled Legislature’s decennial redistricting plan and Dems voted against their governor’s plans, the state Supreme Court asked the parties to submit political boundaries that had the least amount of change to the existing maps. Those maps were drafted by the GOP in 2011 and signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The court’s conservative members blasted the majority decision.
“The majority opinion demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the Wisconsin Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause. Short on legal analysis and long on ipse dixit (a dogmatic and unproven statement), the majority opinion amounts to nothing more than an imposition of judicial will,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette K. Ziegler in the dissenting opinion.
Republicans quickly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking an injunction against Evers’ legislative and congressional maps, as well as ruling on the merits of the case. They got it.
The appeal brought by the Legislature and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) argued that Evers’ maps are a racial gerrymander with the goal of “spreading” black voters among several legislative districts seeking a bare majority in each. Evers’ maps created an additional “majority” district in Milwaukee, from six to seven. Even Democrats criticized the redistricting plan, after rejecting Evers’ so-called “People’s Maps Commission” maps.
The U.S. Supreme Court opinion agreed that the constitution makes clear that government action based on race is subject to strict review.
“Under the Equal Protection Clause, districting maps that sort voters on the basis of race ‘are by their very nature odious,’ ” the majority opinion states in citing case law.
The court has construed law to prohibit the distribution of minority voter districts in a way that dilutes voting power.
The Hagedorn opinion assumes that there are “good reasons” to think that the Voting Rights Act “may” require the additional majority-black district. But the state Supreme Court justices “cannot say for certain on this record that seven majority-Black assembly districts are required by the VRA.”
Wisconsin conservative Justice Rebecca G. Bradley in her dissenting opinion called her colleagues’ arguments a “blatantly political” measure that unconstitutionally gives the court legislative powers.
“The majority’s decision represents a startling departure from the rule of law and an alarming affront to the people of Wisconsin who elected us to uphold the constitutions,” the justice wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling seems to agree with Bradley’s take, noting that the state court majority failed to answer “whether a race-neutral alternative that did not add a seventh majority-black district would deny black voters equal political opportunity.”
Evers moaned that his gerrymandered political maps “are far better than Republicans’ gerrymandered maps we have now.” He’s confident his maps comply with federal and state law, “including the Equal Protection Clause, the Voting Rights Act, and the least-changes standard articulated by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
The highest court in the land disagreed with the Democrat’s assessment.
Two of the court’s liberals, justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented. They called the ruling “unprecedented.”
“In an emergency posture, the Court summarily overturns a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision resolving a conflict over the State’s redistricting, a decision rendered after a 5-month process involving all interested stakeholders,” Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion. It’s a strikingly states’ rights pose from justices that often side with federal authority.
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the governor’s legislative maps violate equal protection by racially gerrymandering districts.
“This is a critical victory to ensure that our government not make decisions on the basis of race,” Esenberg said.
Congressional maps remain
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court did not weigh in on the redrawn congressional maps approved by the state court. Republicans had also asked for an injunction on those maps, which in particular will make Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District more competitive. The seat is currently held by Rep. Bryan Steil, a Janesville Republican.