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Supreme Court won’t hear lawsuit seeking to redraw Wisconsin’s congressional maps

The ruling comes just weeks after Gov. Tony Evers signed new maps for the state Legislature

Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Wisconsin Supreme Court won’t hear a lawsuit that sought to redraw the state’s congressional map, striking a blow to Democrats that could have national implications. 

The ruling means the state will hold its 2024 U.S. House elections using the existing map, which helped the GOP win six of eight congressional districts in 2022, despite a strong showing from Democrats statewide.

It’s a different outcome than the recent fight over state legislative districts, which ended last month when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed new maps for the state Assembly and Senate that he drew as part of a separate lawsuit. Those maps are projected to make races for the state Legislature far more competitive than they’ve been in well over a decade.

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The congressional lawsuit, filed by the Democratic firm Elias Law Group, asked justices to reopen a 2021 redistricting case in which the court’s former conservative majority adopted a “least changes” approach to redrawing congressional and state legislative maps. 

It hinged on a December ruling by the state Supreme Court’s liberal majority in Wisconsin’s high-profile legislative redistricting case. In that decision, justices ruled the “least changes” approach used previously by the court to draw legislative and congressional district lines “lacks any basis in Wisconsin redistricting law or precedent.” 

The court’s rejection of the lawsuit, which Republicans called a political venture using a “cynical hypothesis,” likely hurts Democratic chances of picking away at a slim GOP majority in Congress going into the November election.

While Democrats could still compete in Wisconsin, they face an uphill climb. Just two of the state’s congressional seats are considered competitive under the current map, and both are represented by GOP incumbents.

In the 1st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, won his 2022 election by roughly 9 percentage points. In the 3rd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden won by less than 4 percentage points.

Friday afternoon’s ruling came in an unsigned, unanimous order by the court. Liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose election in 2023 flipped the court from a conservative to a liberal majority, did not participate in the ruling.

“I decline to participate in this proceeding because I was not a member of the court when it issued its March 3, 2022 decision and order,” Protasiewicz wrote.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, said in a statement on social media that he was disappointed in the court’s ruling.

“In a purple state, having 6 seats w/ one party & 2 w/ another is anything but fair. Unfortunately, non-participation likely killed our chances for fair maps,” Pocan wrote.

Protasiewicz’s “non-participation” left the court split 3-3 between conservatives and liberals, making it exceedingly unlikely they’d agree to reopen the redistricting case.

Rick Esenberg, with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, issued a statement applauding the court’s Friday order.

“This matter was settled two years ago and there is no need to redraw the congressional maps,” Esenberg said. “The request to redraw these maps was both procedurally improper and legally wrong, and we are glad the Court has declined the invitation to revisit this matter.”

Ruling means ‘least changes’ congressional map stays in place

While not the outcome Democrats had hoped for, the ruling means that all Wisconsin’s political maps — for the state Legislature and for Congress — were drawn by Evers.

Evers drew the new legislative maps — for the state Assembly and Senate — with “partisan impact” in mind, following an order by the court’s liberal majority last year. Under those maps, experts say either party could win a majority of seats in the Legislature if they win a majority of the votes.

Evers drew the congressional maps under a different directive from the court’s previous conservative majority. Under their guidance, parties to a 2021 redistricting lawsuit were ordered to make the “least changes” possible to the old maps, which were passed by the Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.

Of all the maps considered by the court in 2021, Evers’ map prevailed, preserving a Republican edge in races for Congress, but opening a door to competing in Rep. Steil’s district down the road.