A three judge panel of appellate judges said on Monday that the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 redrawing of State Assembly districts unfairly favor Republicans.
The judges held that the resulting districts were so blatantly partisan that they denied Democrats a fair shot at electing candidates of their choosing. The panel held that the districts were therefore unconstitutional.
Federal courts have routinely struck down gerrymanders on racial grounds, but not on grounds that they unfairly give advantage to a political party, which is the more common form of gerrymandering. The reason the case is important is not for what it says about Wisconsin’s state seats, but the fact that it can now go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Democrats hope that the justices will provide a legal test that can be applied to districts around the country, something that has eluded them for decades.
In the 2-1 ruling, the majority said that “There is no question,” that the map drawn by Wisconsin’s legislature “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.” The judges went on to add, “It is clear that the drafters got what they intended to get.”
The court held that the First Amendment and the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause prohibit redistricting that makes it harder for members of a disfavored political party to elect their candidates and which have no legitimate justification.
Ruth Greenwood of the Campaign Legal Center, who helped argue the case, called Monday’s ruling historic.
“For the first time in thirty years, a federal court has found a district plan to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. If this holds up on appeal, dozens of state legislative plans will be vulnerable.”
Judge William Griesbach dissented. He said the test used by the majority is not an appropriate one in a system that gives the political branches of government the power to draw district maps.
“If political motivation is improper, then the task of redistricting should be constitutionally assigned to some other body.”
With the incoming administration, and President-elect Trump’s promise to appoint very conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ultimate outcome of the case is anything but certain.