Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down its ruling regarding Wisconsin’s decennial political redistricting. The majority of the court decided to adopt the maps drawn by Gov. Tony Evers. While the subject of redistricting puts most voters to sleep and the end result of the ruling is unimpactful for most Wisconsinites, the court’s action sheds a bright light on the state’s befuddling high court and the rank insincerity of politicos everywhere.
The redistricting process happens every decade after the annual census in completed. The purpose of the process is to redraw all of the political boundaries to reflect population changes that have happened since the previous census. Given that the process directly impacts every politician in the state, except those who are elected statewide, politicians get very worked up about it. Almost nobody else cares even though they should.
The rules for redistricting are fairly simple: Draw lines that create political districts that are roughly equal in population, contiguous, and do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race or other distinctions protected by the United States Constitution. In Wisconsin, the state Constitution also requires that each Senate district contain three Assembly districts and respect municipal boundaries. The politics of redistricting are far more complex.
In Wisconsin, redistricting is done through the regular legislative process. The Legislature meets, listens to public input, gets feedback from constituents, debates, argues, harangues, amends, and eventually passes a bill with the new district lines. From there, the governor either signs the new lines into law or vetoes them. If the Legislature and governor are controlled by different parties, which has happened more often than not in Wisconsin during redistricting years, the result is usually that the governor vetoes the redistricting law and the whole thing ends up in court. That is what happened this time. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided to take the case about redistricting, which is their duty, the majority decided to ask interested parties to submit their own maps and the court would pick whichever one caused the “least change.” Through this invented rubric, subsequently tortured into “core retention,” the court chose Governor Evers’ maps. The result is that Wisconsin’s legislative districts still lean heavily in the Republicans’ favor, but not quite as much as if the court chose the maps debated and passed by the Legislature. It is impossible for anyone to draw maps that favor Democrat majorities because the liberals in the state have decided to overwhelmingly live together in a couple of relatively small geographies instead of fanning out across the state to live with people who are not like them.
The ruling by the high court was written by Justice Brian Hagedorn. As the only man on the court, Hagedorn has taken it upon himself to be the court’s fulcrum with three conservative women justices on one side and three leftist women justices on the other. What is impossible to discern is any guiding judicial philosophy by Hagedorn. It is not fair to call him a juridical conservative or a judicial liberal because his decision making is not consistent enough to divine a coherent philosophy.
In reading the decision written by Hagedorn, which I encourage everyone to do, it reminded me of something written by a high school sophomore. His childlike arguments were not rooted in law or precedent, but in his own personal sense of fairness. He whimsically brushes away law when admitting that his invented, “parties struggled with reconciling it (the court’s invented “least change” rubric) with the United States Constitution, Wisconsin Constitution, and Voting Rights Act.” They struggled to reconcile it because it is unreconcilable, yet Hagedorn persisted.
There are two major things wrong with Evers’ maps — one legal and one political. The legal problem is that, as Hagedorn’s ruling explains in great detail, Governor Evers determined district lines based on race. Using race to decide district lines is unconstitutional unless it is done to remedy a previous racial injustice, which no one has alleged. In this respect, Evers’ maps are a clear violation of the 14th Amendment.
When the 14th Amendment was written after the Civil War, it was designed to prevent racist white citizens from bottling up black citizens into a few districts to minimize their political power. Yet, this is precisely what Evers and Hagedorn did. Evers used racial considerations to create one more majority-black Assembly district by diluting black Wisconsinites’ voice in other districts.
The political problem with Evers’ maps is that he created them in the first place. The purpose of using the legislative process to create the maps is to ensure that they receive all of the scrutiny and visibility that the legislative process requires and allows. The Legislature’s maps were created in the light of day, debated, tweaked, and passed. Governor Evers’ maps were created in his office by a group of faceless, nameless people who were probably not even wearing masks.
In a republic where the people are supposed to have a voice, one solitary white man in a black robe has chosen a map drawn by another solitary white man in a gray suit. Nobody else even had a seat at the table. That is not how representative government is supposed to work.
The decision has already been appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In the end, the resulting district lines will matter little to anyone who is not vying for public office, but the process by which we arrive at these decisions matter is we are to preserve our civil rights.
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