The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in a legal challenge that could undo one of the most aggressive gerrymanders of legislative districts in the country, and open the door for a radical shift in political power in the state, where Republicans now have a strong grip on the State Legislature.
The petition, filed in August on behalf of 19 Democratic voters in Wisconsin, asks the court to declare that the state’s existing maps are unconstitutional, and order new ones to be drawn before the 2024 election.
The lawsuit differs from challenges to gerrymandered maps in some other states, because it is focused on what might seem at a glance to be a neutral technical issue: a requirement that districts be compact and contiguous. The current maps include dozens of districts that are drawn in contorted shapes and broken into unconnected pieces, a practice that the plaintiffs say violates the State Constitution.
The case also argues that the way the maps were most recently updated violated the separation of powers clause of the state constitution.
In Wisconsin, a crucial battleground state in presidential elections, Democrats see the case as a rare opportunity to redraw maps for both the State Assembly and Senate that have been tilted heavily against their candidates, and potentially to require new elections next year for every seat in both houses.
A hotly contested judicial election in April tipped the balance on the State Supreme Court to a 4-to-3 liberal majority, emboldening voting-rights advocates to challenge the maps.
The new liberal on the court, Justice Janet Protasiewicz, won her seat by a double-digit margin after campaigning largely on the issues of abortion and voting rights; she has called the state’s current legislative maps “rigged.”
The court’s decision in October to hear the case challenging the maps came at a time when Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly, was threatening to impeach Justice Protasiewicz. Despite complaints from conservatives about her remarks on the campaign trail, she has declined to recuse herself.
Republicans now control sizable majorities of seats in both chambers of the State Legislature, even though the electorate is divided roughly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats often win statewide elections; Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won a second term in 2022.
The existing maps were originally created a decade ago under a Republican governor, Scott Walker, and then were adjusted after the 2020 census to give Republicans an even steeper advantage.
The State Supreme Court is not expected to rule immediately on the case.