Court strikes down Wisconsin district lines

Court strikes down Wisconsin district lines
© Greg Nash

A federal court on Monday struck down state legislative district boundaries drawn by Republicans five years ago, ruling that the lines violated Democratic voters' constitutional rights.

The ruling by a panel of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judges does not apply to the state's Congressional district. But it is consequential because it embraced a new justification for overturning existing district lines, by finding Republicans intentionally discriminated against voters of a certain party, rather than voters of a certain race.

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Appeals of cases involving political districting go directly to the Supreme Court. If the high court takes up the case with its current eight-member makeup, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a deadlocked decision would mean the three-judge panel's ruling would stand.

Writing for the 2-1 majority, Judge Kenneth Ripple, appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, said the 2011 law that resulted in the present lines “was intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters throughout the decennial period by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats.”

Ripple and Judge Barbara Crabb agreed with plaintiffs that the Republican legislature intentionally diluted Democratic voters' political power.

The Supreme Court has not yet decided what, exactly, constitutes unconstitutional gerrymandering. After the court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats and voting rights advocates have filed suit in half a dozen states testing the boundaries of legal theory.

Earlier this month, Republicans won 64 of 99 state Assembly seats under the current maps, drawn and adopted in 2011. Statewide, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE beat Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton labels Trump coronavirus executive actions a 'stunt' What Trump got wrong by pushing coal Trump is fighting the wrong war MORE by 27,000 votes, a margin of just 1 percentage point, out of more than 2.9 million cast.

If drawing districts with the explicit intent of marginalizing members of a specific political party becomes the new standard, or one of the new standards, under which gerrymandering is judged, it has the potential to dramatically alter the legal landscape in states where both Republicans and Democrats have gone to extremes to draw themselves into power. 

Until the court's decision striking down the section of the Voting Rights Act, and in several cases after that decision, race has been the primary justification for redistricting complaints.

The three-judge panel gave the state of Wisconsin and voters who brought suit against the existing lines 45 days to come up with a proposed solution to the district lines. They did not order immediate changes, or any changes that would alter the result of this month's election.

But Attorney General Brad Schimel (R) said he will appeal, after evaluating the 7th Circuit's 159-page decision.

“This 2-1 decision does not affect the results of this month's election or any prior election and legislative district boundaries remain unchanged until the court rules on any remedy,” Schimel said in a statement released by his office.