Federal Redistricting Trial Begins in Wisconsin | Courthouse News Service
Sunday, December 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal Redistricting Trial Begins in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The federal court battle over what some voters call "one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in American history" began in earnest Tuesday, when a trial against the State of Wisconsin opened.

A handful of Democratic voters described the most recent redrawing of state legislative maps, 2011 Wisconsin Act 43, as such when they filed their lawsuit in July 2015.

Attorney Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, repeated this allegation in his opening statement for the plaintiffs Tuesday.

Stephanopoulos promised the plaintiffs would also prove the controversial redistricting was "deliberate, severe, durable and unjustifiable."

But whatever the new plan is, it is not a "gerrymander," said Assistant Attorney General Brian Keenan in his opening statement for the defense.

Keenan noted that a gerrymander refers to redrawing legislative districts in a way that produces bizarre shapes and borders, as when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 created a strangely shaped new district to his own benefit.

Act 43 does not do this, and the plaintiffs' assertion to the contrary is a "radical conceptual change" to the meaning of the word "gerrymander," Keenan said.

The voters claim the current plan was designed with the principles of "cracking" and "packing" to result in a strategic allocation of "wasted votes."

"Cracking" in this case refers to distributing Democratic voters among many districts so that they never quite achieve a majority, allowing Republicans to take the seats regardless of the Democrat votes.

"Packing" consolidates Republicans into voting districts in order to assure a landslide victory, according to the complaint and Tuesday's opening statement.

In Wisconsin, the resulting efficiency gap — a measure of "wasted votes" cast in excess of what is needed for victory or for the losing candidate — is 11 to 12 percent in favor of Republicans, one of the highest in American history.

This was the predicted result of the plan, created by lawyers and legislative aides and subject to full review only by high-ranking Republican legislators. Democrats were not permitted to review the plan until it was "rushed" through the Legislature in a matter of days, and rank-and-file Republicans signed secrecy pledges before reviewing only how the plan would affect their individual districts, the voters' lawsuit alleges.

In addition to claiming Republicans colluded to gerrymander the state's election district map, the voters say they were harmed by the result: legislative elections in 2012 and 2014 in which the GOP gained a significant number of seats in the Wisconsin Assembly.

First to testify Tuesday was one of the plaintiffs, retired law professor and lifelong Democrat William Whitford, who said he was harmed by the redistricting as a donor to the state Democratic election campaign.

The plaintiffs then switched to an hour-and-a-half long videotaped deposition from University of Oklahoma political science professor Ronald Keith Gaddie.

Gaddie provided statistics that informed the creation of the map used in Act 43, and testified as to the mathematical formulas used to arrive at the numbers the new plan would deliver.

During deposition, he was asked why certain proposed maps were called "aggressive" and "assertive."

"It's a map that makes an assertive move towards a Republican advantage," Gaddie said in the video.

The trial is set to last through Friday, May 27. It went on as planned after the defendants' motion for summary judgment was denied last month.

Pursuant to federal law, the case is being heard by a three-judge panel: Western Wisconsin U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb, Seventh Circuit Judge Kenneth Ripple and Eastern Wisconsin Chief U.S. District Judge William C. Griesbach.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.