MILWAUKEE (AP) — Federal judges on Tuesday postponed a trial over the state’s latest election maps, telling lawyers for both sides to spend the day determining whether lawmakers would consider drawing new maps.
Presiding Judge J.P. Stadtmueller cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which the justices concluded that redistricting is best handled by lawmakers as much as possible, not by judges.
Stadtmueller gave the lawyers until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to “advise the court whether there is opposition to addressing this matter in the forum where it should be addressed — the Wisconsin Legislature.”
Redistricting is the process in which lawmakers draw new maps for voting districts every 10 years to account for population changes.
The most recent maps, drawn in secrecy and approved last year by Republicans who control the state Legislature, are GOP-friendly. In some cases they cluster Republicans and disperse Democrats in ways that Democrats say could make it harder for them to win future elections.
Democrats and an immigrant-rights group have sued the state Government Accountability Board to prevent the board from conducting elections based on the new maps.
Daniel Kelly, an attorney representing the Government Accountability Board, told reporters the next step would be for attorneys to see whether the majority and minority leaders in the state Senate and Assembly had any interest in taking up the issue again.
“I would hate to speculate” on what they’ll do, he said.
In the Assembly, Republican Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald and Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca both declined to comment.
The state Senate leaders, Republican Scott Fitzgerald and Democrat Mark Miller, did not immediately return messages.
If lawmakers agree to revisit the issue, the trial will be postponed three or four weeks. If lawmakers decline, the trial will begin Wednesday morning.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to invalidate the 2012 maps and to order that the previous maps be used for elections this year until the court establishes a fairer redistricting plan.
Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four state senators — all Republicans — are being targeted for recall. The outcome of the redistricting case would only affect contests for Senate seats because the governor and lieutenant governor are statewide races. State elections officials are currently trying to determine whether enough valid signatures have been submitted for the elections to proceed this year.
The new maps could give Republicans an edge toward maintaining their 17-16 majority in the Senate.
Democrats had called on Walker to veto the maps. Doing so, they said, would go a long way toward showing he was serious about being more bipartisan following rancorous debates during his first six months in office, most notably over his collective-bargaining proposal that spurred the recalls.
But Walker signed off on the maps in August, saying he believes they meet the legal standards of fairness in their treatment of communities of interest, minority representation, and compact, contiguous districts.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to intervene in the drawing of new maps, a request with some precedent.
The last three times redistricting was taken up in Wisconsin, due to split political control, the Legislature and governor were unable to agree upon a plan. Each of those times, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, a federal court had to intervene and approve a map for state legislative districts.
The trial this week marks the latest step following a series of preliminary rulings that have gone against Republicans. Last week the federal court issued a scathing order forcing Republican lawmakers to make public emails and other documents they wanted to keep secret related to the redrawing of political boundaries.
The judges said Republican lawmakers made a “poorly disguised” attempt to “cloak the private machinations of Wisconsin’s Republican legislators in the shroud of attorney-client privilege.”
The judges called it a “shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny.”
Previous disclosures in the lawsuit revealed that nearly all of the state’s Republican lawmakers signed a legal agreement in which they promised to not comment publicly about redistricting discussions while the maps were being drafted.
Another document of talking points prepared by legislative staff for state Rep. Robin Vos, the powerful co-chairman of the budget-writing committee, warned him to ignore public comments about the maps and focus instead on what was being said in private strategy meetings.