Gavel file photo

Using especially tough language, a three-judge panel in Milwaukee on Thursday ordered Republican lawmakers to release a collection of emails and documents related to redistricting legislation, despite vigorous attempts by GOP leadership to keep the records secret.

In the order, the panel chastised Republican lawmakers for trying "to cloak the private machinations of Wisconsin's Republican legislators in the shroud of attorney-client privilege."

"What could have — indeed should have — been accomplished publicly instead took place in private, in an all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny," read the order, written by U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, nor Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, had any immediate comment on the ruling.

Stadtmueller was appointed to the federal bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan. He was joined by Robert Dow, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, and Diane Wood, appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

States are required to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years to reflect population changes, which are reflected in the U.S. Census. The Legislature has set aside $400,000 to pay for the process.

Even before the new maps, which were drawn by Republicans who control the Legislature, were released, a group of Democratic citizens sued in federal court challenging the maps' constitutionality. 

Immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera also has sued.

It was learned this month that most of the state's Republican lawmakers signed a legal agreement not to comment publicly about redistricting discussions. 

Republican lawmakers and attorneys with the firm Michael Best & Friedrich had argued that 84 documents were covered by attorney-client privilege and should not be released.

Thursday's ruling is similar to a string of recent orders that said such documents were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The judges said the Legislature's process blurred the lines between political, strategic, and legal advice. A trial in the redistricting lawsuit is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

The emails show a concerted effort to line up political support for maps leaders knew would be highly controversial, going so far as to orchestrate supporting testimony before the potential testifiers had even seen the maps.

In an email dated July 11, 2011, attorney Jim Troupis discussed with Republican legislative staffers how to prepare for the supporting testimony of conservative Dane County Sup. Eileen Bruskewitz. In the message, Troupis said Bruskewitz will testify in favor of the maps if they "call her and provide her the numbers, district lines, and other information today and then walk her through things."

Reached by phone Thursday, Bruskewitz, defended the actions by saying she was trying to make the process less partisan.

"I don't think I had seen a copy of (the map), but I knew it would be favorable to Republicans," she said. 

A similar email exchange took place concerning the support of Rick Esenberg, a Marquette University law professor.

"Professor Rick Esenberg has agreed to testify next Friday in support of the map," Troupis wrote in an email to the staffers. "He needs a.) the maps; b) the numbers; c) a summary of eq. population, compact /contiguous, minority responsiveness aspects of the map."

Esenberg told the State Journal that his position was that it's difficult to win a lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering. 

"I was testifying that I didn't think it was susceptible to legal challenge," Esenberg said. "We never discussed what I would say."

Many of the emails dealt with the Latino communities in the Milwaukee area. In one email, Troupis discusses the potential endorsement of the maps by MALDEF, a large Latino civil rights foundation.

Troupis wrote "this will take the largest legal fund for the Latino community off the table in any later court battle."

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the emails were revealing.

"It undermines the credibility of their testimony," Barca said.

Contact Clay Barbour at cbarbour@madison.com or 608-252-6129; contact Mary Spicuzza at mspicuzza@ madison.com or 608-252-6122.

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State Government Reporter for Wisconsin State Journal