A federal trial begins on Tuesday in a lawsuit against Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn legislative map, and while it’s not the first such challenge, this one is unique. In some ways, Wisconsin has been here before. Republican legislators drew this map in 2011. Democrats sued, and in 2012, a federal judicial panel left most of the map intact. Under normal circumstances that would be the end of the story. But the case going to trial on Tuesday isn’t normal, and the coalition of groups seeking to overturn the map say Wisconsin’s redistricting experience was anything but typical. “Wisconsin is the most extreme partisan gerrymander in the United States in the post-2010 cycle,” said attorney Gerry Hebert, who’s the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. “It’s about as far out from what you would consider to be fair as you can imagine.” Legislatures get a chance to redraw their political districts every decade after the U.S. Census. When state government is divided between Republicans and Democrats, they usually don’t agree on a map and the job falls to a court. When one party runs everything in state government, it can draw the map it wants, which is what happened in 2011.
Nobody really disputes that Republicans drew a map that benefits them. What this lawsuit seeks to prove is that Republicans got too partisan, and in the process, violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters. “I think we have found the way in this case to really cleanse a big stain on our democracy that has existed for a long time, but has gotten really exacerbated in the last couple of decades where partisan gerrymandering has become the political weapon of choice in the political warfare,” Hebert said.
The fact that a federal court is even hearing this case is a big deal, not only for Wisconsin, but potentially the nation, according to University of California Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen. The last time the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue, the court was split on whether to step in and stop partisan gerrymandering; Four justices wanted to intervene and four justices wanted the court to step aside. In the middle was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was open to the idea if someone could come up with a way to measure how much partisan gerrymandering is too much.
Hasen said this case aims to fill that gap. “It’s hard to win any partisan gerrymandering case given the history, but what this case … is trying to do is to come up with a new theory that could overcome all of the objections that have been raised so far.”