Supreme Court rejects Wisconsin GOP challenge to congressional boundaries

John Fritze

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to block the use of Wisconsin's new congressional map, the latest in a series of rulings in which the high court allowed district boundaries to remain in place for the upcoming midterm elections.

But in an unsigned decision that drew a dissent from two members of the court's liberal wing, the court sent a map delineating state legislative boundaries back for a re-do.  

The decisions were the latest in a series of rulings in which the high court has been asked to review district boundaries for the upcoming midterm elections. In most of those cases, the nation's highest court has allowed those maps to remain in place. 

This time it was Republicans who sued over congressional and legislative boundaries drawn by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and approved by the state's highest court. Republicans claimed the state court violated the Constitution's due process clause by setting standards for the maps they asserted Evers' proposal failed to meet.

The Supreme Court declined the GOP request on the congressional maps. 

But in a separate opinion, the court said it agreed with plaintiffs who asserted that the legislative maps were drawn with race in mind in a way that violated the equal protection clause. The Supreme Court sent the maps back to state courts for review. 

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor called that decision "unprecedented." 

"Despite the fact that summary reversals are generally reserved for decisions in violation of settled law, the court today faults the state Supreme Court for its failure to comply with an obligation that, under existing precedent, is hazy at best," Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by Associate Justice Elena Kagan. "This court’s intervention today is not only extraordinary but also unnecessary."

The Supreme Court has been hesitant to wade into a number of redistricting battles that have appeared on its emergency docket as states across the nation redraw their political boundaries after the 2020 census. The justices turned away GOP efforts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania this month to block court-ordered districting plans. 

A divided Supreme Court in February allowed Alabama to rely on a congressional map that a lower court said likely denied Black voters an additional member in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though it granted an emergency request asking that the map be used, the court also said it would hear arguments – probably later this year – in a case with profound implications for the consideration of race in political map drawing. 

More than 100 opponents of the Republican redistricting plans vow to fight the maps at a rally ahead of a joint legislative committee hearing at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File)

The Pennsylvania and North Carolina appeals revealed that at least four conservative justices are interested in scrutinizing the power state courts have over federal elections. Republicans have argued state courts lack the authority to second-guess legislatures’ decisions about the conduct of elections for Congress and the presidency.

"We will have to resolve this question sooner or later, and the sooner we do so, the better," wrote Associate Justice Samuel Alito in a dissent joined by Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. "This case presented a good opportunity to consider the issue, but unfortunately the court has again found the occasion inopportune.”

Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh made a similar point. 

In Wisconsin, Evers' maps include more competitive districts than the ones Republicans drew, giving Democrats a better shot at winning races than they have now. In one of the most significant changes, Republican Rep. Bryan Steil's district in southeastern Wisconsin went from having a 10-point GOP advantage to a two-point advantage. 

Contributing: Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel