Voting maps for two districts in Milwaukee will have to be redrawn because Republican lawmakers' first attempt violated the federal Voting Rights Act by unfairly weakening Latino voting power, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.
But 130 of Wisconsin's 132 newly-drawn state legislative districts are expected to remain largely unchanged. The GOP-friendly maps were drawn by the Republicans who control the Legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in August.
The three-judge panel slammed Republican lawmakers and the maps' other drafters in its order, saying their comments that the maps were not influenced by partisan factors were "almost laughable," and that the redistricting process was "needlessly secret, regrettably excluding input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens."
But ultimately, the panel found the only lines that must be redrawn involve the two south side Milwaukee districts, saying Republicans' first try unfairly hurt Latino voters there by diluting their voting power. The judges found that instead of creating voting districts that kept Latinos in a single bloc and improving their chances of electing Latino candidates, the maps separated them into two different districts. And the panel said that because Assembly Districts 8 and 9 in Milwaukee violate the Voting Rights Act, the state Government Accountability Board cannot implement the new maps in their current form.
That means that unless there is a counter ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the GOP-friendly maps will be in place for the next decade. They are set to go into effect in November.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said options for fixing the maps include a special session, an extraordinary session, or the court could redraw those districts. There is also a limited-business floor period from April 24 to May 3.
But Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he can't understand why the Legislature would come back for another session to make the minor changes required by the court and vote on the maps.
"Why would you go back to the Legislature?" Fitzgerald said.
The judges said their ruling "is not intended to affect any other district" and re-drawing those lines "must occur within the combined outer boundaries of those two districts."
Since the maps passed the Legislature last summer, Republicans lost control of the Senate, which is now split evenly 16-16 after a GOP senator resigned last week.
Election boundaries must be redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts in an effort to ensure that political districts throughout the state roughly include the same number of voters.
In recent decades, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers in Wisconsin have not been able to agree on maps, and as a result courts have set the boundaries. This time around, Republicans worked quickly to draw GOP-friendly maps after taking control of the Assembly, Senate and governor's office in January 2011.
Even before Republican lawmakers unveiled their maps last summer, a group of Democratic citizens sued over redistricting in federal court in Milwaukee. Then immigrant rights advocacy group Voces de la Frontera filed another suit. The two cases were consolidated.
They argued the new district lines weakened Latinos' voting power by dividing one Hispanic bloc in Milwaukee into two separate Assembly districts. The panel agreed.
They also said the maps needlessly moved as many as 300,000 voters into new districts, forcing many voters to wait six years, instead of the usual four, before casting ballots in their next state Senate elections, which are staggered. The plaintiffs argued that change violated those voters' rights, but the judges' ruling Thursday — while voicing concerns — did not agree on that charge.
The maps' backers insisted it's impossible to draw maps that please everyone in redistricting, which is a notoriously controversial process. And they said creating two Milwaukee districts with heavy Latino populations would increase their ability to elect two Latinos to the state Assembly rather than just one.
The panel's order repeated that lawmakers, rather than courts, should be the ones to draw the lines. The court battle over the maps had been delayed this spring after the judges urged GOP leaders to revisit the maps, but they refused. The trial took place in late February.
Thursday's judgment was signed by J.P. Stadtmueller, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, in the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee. It was written by Stadtmueller, Diane P. Wood of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Robert M. Dow Jr. of the Northern District of Illinois. Wood was appointed by President Bill Clinton and Dow by President George W. Bush.
Despite rejecting most of the claims against the new maps, the panel served up some harsh words for Republicans. The judges slammed GOP lawmakers over the secrecy surrounding the redistricting process, noting the maps involved confidentiality agreements that most GOP lawmakers were required to sign, pledging not to publicly discuss the maps.
"Every effort was made to keep this work out of the public eye and, most particularly, out of the eye of the Democrats," they wrote. The judges also noted that while the GOP shut Democrats and most of the public out of the process, "they also held meetings behind closed doors with selected outsiders" like lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
But the Republican state attorney general called it a win for GOP leaders who control the Legislature.
"The judgments made by the Wisconsin Legislature have largely been vindicated," J.B. Van Hollen said. "No constitutional defects were found and what began as a scattershot attack on every aspect of these laws has come down to a single finding that one line between two districts should be adjusted."
Fitzgerald and Assembly Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald also called it a vindication and said they were working with the state Department of Justice to explore their options going forward.
But Voces de la Frontera and Democrats also declared victory.
"This is a vindication that we were right," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the group's executive director. "If the Republican Party had chosen to honor the public process — instead of operating secretly — there would have been the opportunity for a meaningful discussion and debate."
Voces' attorney Peter Earle said the group would file a petition seeking to have its legal fees paid by the state by April 5.
Democratic lawmakers called on Republicans to make a fresh start.
"They have given the Legislature another chance — and we stand ready to work with the Republicans to draw maps in a transparent, open fashion that respects the citizens of Wisconsin and our communities," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.