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Wisconsin's Supreme Court hears case that may mean new legislative maps for the state

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Wisconsin now, where new districts could be on the way for its state Legislature. Statewide elections in Wisconsin are typically very close, but Republicans hold big majorities in the Statehouse. Democrats say that's because of advantages that GOP lawmakers have built into the political maps there. Those maps were the subject of oral arguments at the Wisconsin Supreme Court yesterday.

Wisconsin Public Radio's Rich Kremer is here to fill us in. Good morning.

RICH KREMER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So Democrats criticized the state's maps for being gerrymandered, basically, to give the GOP an unfair advantage. But my understanding is that that was not actually the focus of the hearing.

KREMER: That is correct. In deciding to take this case up quickly, a majority of justices on the state Supreme Court left that question aside for now. Instead, they focused on two others - one, whether the voting districts for the state Senate and state Assembly violate Wisconsin's constitution on an issue called contiguity. That's basically whether all parts of the district need to be within one boundary.

And then the other issue was whether the court violated due process standards last year, when the conservative majority picked maps drawn by Republican lawmakers, even though they were vetoed by our Democratic governor. Now liberals on the court have a 4-3 advantage.

MARTIN: Is there something that stood out to you from these arguments?

KREMER: Yeah. The attorneys and justices spent a lot of time talking about the definition of the word contiguity - what it means, what it meant to the framers. But also, there was some sniping between justices on the bench. Conservatives say that if this is about the shape of districts, why wasn't the lawsuit filed sooner? They accused lawyers and even some on the court for kind of being in cahoots on that. And that question led to one notable moment, this from conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REBECCA BRADLEY: Everybody knows that the reason we're here is because there was a change in the membership of the court. You would not have brought this action - right? - if the newest justice had lost her election.

KREMER: That newest justice is Janet Protasiewicz. She won a really high-profile election in April to tip the balance of the court for the first time in 15 years.

MARTIN: Did she have a role in the testimony yesterday?

KREMER: Yes. Justice Protasiewicz was pretty quiet overall, but just her being there has been a bit of a political lightning rod in the state. Conservatives have called on her to recuse herself from this case because she called the current Republican maps in Wisconsin rigged while she was campaigning. She's refused to step aside, but some Republicans have threatened to impeach her as a result.

MARTIN: All right. And before we let you go, would you say a bit more about why these maps matter?

KREMER: Sure. Big picture - well, some of the liberal justices on the court during these oral arguments have already been talking about how they might draw new maps for next year's elections. That could lead to a big political shift in the state. Wisconsin is known as a purple state, but Republicans have a near supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. So breaking that legislative stronghold could lead to some major policy changes, including a repeal on a ban on most abortions in Wisconsin.

MARTIN: That is Wisconsin Public Radio's Rich Kremer. Rich, thanks so much for sharing this reporting with us.

KREMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rich Kremer