Supreme Court Takes Up Wisconsin Gerrymandering Case

WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorneys for Wisconsin voters applauded Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court took up their challenge to partisan gerrymandering.

The Campaign Legal Center brought a motion with the justices last month, asking them to affirm a November decision by the Seventh Circuit that struck down Wisconsin’s 2011 State Assembly map as unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments.

Rather than issue a ruling, however, the high court said it will hear the case on the merits. The lower court had also given Wisconsin lawmakers a Nov. 1 deadline to redraw district maps, but the Supreme Court opted Monday to put such relief on hold.

Justice Neil Gorsuch apparently tipped that order for the conservative wing of the court this morning, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer saying they would have rejected Wisconsin’s bid for a stay.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a program at the New York University School of Law, noted that Wisconsin’s maps delivered massive Republican majorities.

“In 2012,” the center said in a statement, “Republicans won 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6 percent of the two-party state-wide vote; in 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote.”

Attorneys for William Whitford and other 11 voters challenging Wisconsin’s district lines said the case could have nationwide effect.

“Partisan gerrymandering of this kind is worse now than at any time in recent memory,” Paul Smith, a vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.

“The Supreme Court has the opportunity to ensure the maps in Wisconsin are drawn fairly, and further, has the opportunity to create ground rules that safeguard every citizen’s right to freely choose their representatives,” added Smith, who will argue the case before the justices.

The Brennan Center highlighted the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in this case as “the first time in more than three decades that a federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a partisan-gerrymandering suit following a full trial.”

Though partisan-gerrymandering cases are nothing new for the high court, there is no precedent yet about creating a standard for policing abuses.

Whitford comes at a critical juncture,” Michael Li, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a statement. “Having a remedy for partisan gerrymandering is very important, especially in the South where race and politics are increasingly joined at the hip. A rule against partisan gerrymandering will have a major impact for communities of color, where partisanship unfortunately has often been used as an excuse for actions that hurt minorities.”

The justices are expected to hear oral argument on the case after summer recess, when the next term starts in October. In reacting to the high court’s involvementWisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel focused only on the order granting a stay.

”The stay is particularly important because it preserves the Legislature’s time, effort, and resources while this case is pending,” Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement. “In our stay application, I argued that requiring the Legislature to redraw district maps this year would have been a waste of resources. I also argued that it was likely that the lower court’s decision would be eventually overturned.”

Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, emphasized that the trend of gerrymandering is not unique to any one party.

“Across the country, we’re witnessing legislators of both parties seizing power from voters in order to advance their purely partisan purposes,” Potter, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission,” said in a statement.

“We’re confident that when the justices see how pervasive and damaging this practice has become, the Supreme Court will adopt a clear legal standard that will ensure our democracy functions as it should,” Potter added.

Smith and Potter’s group noted that legislative aides created Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymander six years ago with hired consultants in a secret room in a private law office.

Employing the latest mapping technology, they created “a district plan that is one of the most extremely gerrymandered state legislative plans in the last four decades,” a statement from the Campaign Legal Center says.

The group’s statement also quotes University of Chicago Law professor Nick Stephanopoulos as saying the last seven years have seen “four of the five most gerrymandered state legislative maps on partisan grounds in the last 45 years — as well as eight of the 10 statewide maps for the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Stephanopoulos is co-counsel for the challengers, along with Jessica Amunson of Jenner & Block; Douglas Poland of Rathje & Woodward; and Peter Earle and Michele Odorizzi of Mayer Brown.

“This case represents the first time in 31 years that a lower court struck down a district plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander,” the center added.

A group called the Patriotic Millionaires noted in a statement that the Supreme Court’s resolution of this case represents “an unprecedented opportunity to return control of Congress to the American people.” 

“We are hopeful that the decision to hear this case will be the first step in addressing the partisan gerrymandering that is currently shaping the House of Representatives as well as state legislatures across the country,” said Morris Pearl, a former BlackRock managing director who chairs the group. “Partisan gerrymandering has distorted our political system and disenfranchised voters for far too long. It is time for the Supreme Court to declare that it is wrong when a majority of the voters in a state favor one set of policies, but partisan district boundaries mean that a majority of their representatives are opposed to those policies. Too many Americans have had the key to their power — their votes — stolen by the very system that was instituted to secure their rights.”

The Brennan Center for Justice anticipates that the case will shake up the next round of redistricting after the 2020 Census, as well as congressional maps in roughly six states and legislative maps in about 10 states.

“Wisconsin’s gerrymander was one of the most aggressive of the decade, locking in a large and implausibly stable majority for Republicans in what is otherwise a battleground state,” the Brennan Center’s Thomas Wolf said in a statement. “It’s a symptom of politics going haywire and something that we increasingly see when one party has sole control of the redistricting process.”

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