Wisconsin Supreme Court anti-gerrymandering ruling applies only to state legislative maps

A December ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the maps of the state’s Senate and Assembly districts as unconstitutional. The ruling will not impact the state’s congressional maps, which did not have the same issues.

After the 2020 census, Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature passed redistricting maps for both the Legislature and the state’s eight seats in Congress. The Princeton University Gerrymandering Project gave the maps an F rating, noting that they gave Republicans and incumbents a significant advantage. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed both maps in November 2021, saying, “The new maps vetoed today, which have been described as even more gerrymandered than the existing maps, all but ensure Republicans will preserve their undemocratic majorities in the Legislature while increasing Republicans’ chances of disproportionately winning six of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts.”

At the time, Republican-backed justices held a 4-3 majority on the state’s Supreme Court. Rather than attempt to override Evers’ vetoes, legislative leaders allowed the court to select district maps. They and Evers each submitted proposals.

“What happened is that the congressional maps submitted by Gov. Evers were chosen and adopted by the then-conservative majority WI Supreme Court in 2021 and then affirmed by SCOTUS [the Supreme Court of the United States],” Jay Heck, executive director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause Wisconsin, explained in an email, “unlike the state legislative maps which the then-conservative majority chose the heavily gerrymandered Republican-drawn maps.”

Those maps went into effect for the 2022 elections.

According to Princeton University’s analysis, even the Evers congressional redistricting plan adopted by the court still significantly favored the Republicans, creating four solidly Republican districts, two solidly Democratic districts, and two Republican-leaning competitive districts. But it noted that the districts were relatively competitive, were compact, and did not have an unusually high number of counties split between districts.

“The Governor’s congressional maps were ‘better’ than the GOP-drawn congressional maps in that they made the 1st CD more competitive and kept the 3rd CD competitive while the GOP Congressional maps made the 1st and 3rd CD more Republican,” Heck said. 

In 2022, Republicans won six of Wisconsin’s eight House seats, even as Evers received 51.1% of the vote statewide in his reelection race and Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Mandela Barnes received 49.4%, meaning that the maps gave Republicans three-quarters of the seats even in a 50-50 election.

The legislative maps allowed Republicans to win a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate and nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly. 

But in April 2023, the Democratic-backed Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated Republican-supported Daniel Kelly for an open Supreme Court seat, effectively shifting control of the court from Republican to Democratic. 

A day after Protasiewicz took her seat, voters filed a new challenge to the legislative maps’ constitutionality. No similar challenge was filed for the congressional maps.

On Dec. 22, 2023, the new majority on Wisconsin’s high court ruled 4-3 that the legislative maps violated the state Constitution’s requirement that any territory in a given district be contiguous with any other territory in the district. Justice Jill Karofsky wrote that “the number of state legislative districts containing territory completely disconnected from the rest of the district is striking. At least 50 of 99 assembly districts and at least 20 of 33 senate districts include separate, detached territory.”

The court ordered the Legislature to pass new maps and said it will create its own if lawmakers do not reach an agreement with Evers on a constitutional replacement by Jan. 12.
Republican legislative leaders said in a Dec. 28 filing that they could not create new maps by that deadline and urged the court to reconsider its ruling. If the court refuses to reconsider its ruling, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said, he plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.