The Wisconsin Supreme Court said on Friday that the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislative maps that favor Republicans are unconstitutional. It ordered new maps before the 2024 election in a ruling that could produce a seismic political shift in a crucial presidential swing state.
Justice Jill J. Karofsky, writing for the majority, said that Wisconsin’s current maps violate a requirement in the State Constitution “that Wisconsin’s state legislative districts must be composed of physically adjoining territory.”
“Given the language in the Constitution, the question before us is straightforward,” she wrote. “When legislative districts are composed of separate, detached parts, do they consist of ‘contiguous territory’? We conclude that they do not.”
The decision was widely expected from a court that flipped to a 4-to-3 liberal majority this year after the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history. The winner of that election, Justice Janet Protasiewicz, a former Milwaukee County judge, was openly critical of the current legislative maps, calling them “rigged” and “unfair” during her campaign.
One day after Justice Protasiewicz was sworn into the court in August, a coalition of voting rights groups and law firms filed a petition for the State Supreme Court to hear a redistricting case.
The petition, filed on behalf of 19 voters in Wisconsin, sought to have new maps drawn by March, and for every Assembly seat and every Senate seat to be redrawn and elections for all of them to be held in 2024.
Democrats will now have the opportunity to make gains in a legislature that is currently heavily tilted to favor Republicans. In a state with an electorate that is split roughly equally between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. The Democratic governor, Tony Evers, was re-elected to a second term in 2022 and will serve until at least 2026.
Earlier this year, Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly, had threatened to move to impeach Justice Protasiewicz because of her statements calling the maps “rigged,” but he has since backed away from those comments. On Thursday, he called impeachment proceedings against the justice “super unlikely.”
The court heard oral arguments in the case in November, as bystanders packed into a courtroom in the State Capitol and listened to arguments over the fairness of the maps.
Conservatives on the court accused Democrats of waiting to raise their claim that the maps violate the State Constitution until they had secured a liberal majority on the court.
“Everybody knows that the reason we’re here is because there was a change in the membership of the court,” said Justice Rebecca Bradley, a conservative, interrupting a lawyer representing Democratic voters.
Lawyers representing Republicans said that in the past Democrats had not raised claims of unfairness about noncontiguous districts. One of the lawyers, Taylor Meehan, said the Democrats’ claims were “meritless.”
But Mark Gaber, a lawyer representing Democrats, said that the state’s bizarrely contorted maps had disenfranchised voters.
“Wisconsin is the only state that has anything that looks anything like this,” Mr. Gaber said of the current district boundaries, adding, “This shocks people across the country who look at this map.”