Yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to any hope of fair legislative and Congressional district maps for the next decade.
On a 4-3 decision the court said that it would base its ultimate ruling on the principle of least change to the heavily Republican gerrymandered maps that have been in place for the last ten years. The court won’t make its final decision until early next year and there’s still some hope that a Federal court will over rule them, but that’s looking unlikely.
It has been clear ever since Gov. Tony Evers was elected three years ago that it would come down to two things: who has control of the state Supreme Court and which court (Federal or state) ends up deciding the case. The first question has now been answered. While conservatives have held a 4-3 advantage, Justice Brian Hagedorn has shown some refreshing independence from the party line. But when he joined his conservative colleagues yesterday that pretty much dashed all hopes of a better outcome at the state level. All that’s left is a Hail Mary to the Federal court.
Hagedorn’s decision shouldn’t be all that surprising. On the law alone, he’s probably right. Courts are loath to get into redistricting, which they see as a legislative prerogative and, as such, fundamentally political. And if you define fairness as drawing districts to be as politically competitive as possible, well unfortunately, that it is not a legal standard recognized by either Federal or Wisconsin courts.
That’s why Evers needed to take a stronger stand on this. He should have vetoed the first budget sent to him by the Republican Legislature in 2019 and made it clear that he would sign no budget that did not include a nonpartisan redistricting commission that would produce maps that the Legislature would agree to adopt. Because he didn’t do that he not only missed our only real chance at fair maps, but he failed to gain the respect of Speaker Robin Vos.
He had another chance this year with his second budget, but once again, after publicly flirting with a veto, Evers signed another thoroughly Republican budget. Evers did create his own redistricting commission, but it had no leverage with Republicans and even some Democrats didn’t like the maps it produced.
By passing on his only two leverage points, Evers left the political future of the state for the next decade in the hands of the courts. One Democratic lawyer working on redistricting told me last summer that he thought the chances were no better than one-in-three that courts would side with Evers’ commission. It looks like he was right.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said yesterday’s state court ruling “almost certainly ends all hope for anything remotely resembling fair maps in Wisconsin for at least the next decade — and quite possibly much longer.”
When Evers won in 2018, Democrats (including this one) rejoiced because we knew it meant that he would veto the new round of gerrymandered Republican maps in 2021. He did, but that wasn’t enough. When Hagedorn upset liberal candidate Lisa Neubauer in 2019 it meant that conservatives would control the court and that chances of winning there dropped dramatically. That’s why he needed to use his budget veto to demand a fair process that didn’t wind up in court.
Just to clarify this important time table:
January 2019: Evers assumes office.
April 2019: Hagedorn upsets Neubauer, assuring conservative control of the court.
July 2019: Evers signs budget without demanding nonpartisan redistricting.
July 2021: Evers signs a second budget without demanding a nonpartisan process.
November 2021: Hagedorn sides with conservatives, all but dashing any hope of fair maps.
To sum it all up, rather than taking control of the situation, Evers gambled on Brian Hagedorn. And yesterday he lost his bet.
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