Note: We are crunching Supreme Court of Wisconsin decisions down to size. The general rule for WJI's "SCOW docket" posts is that no justice gets more than 10 paragraphs as written in the actual decision, and all parts of the decision (majority, concurrences, dissents) are contained in one post. . This one is a little different, though. This time, with this case, we are doing it in three parts: first the majority decision, then the longest dissent, then the remaining two dissents. Why? Because this package of writings is extremely important: redistricting of the Legislature. In addition, the opinions are extremely long – 229 pages in all. Due to the size of the opinions, we are giving the majority opinion writer 18 paragraphs and each other opinion writer 15.
Other than that, the rules remain the same. The "upshot" and "background" sections do not count as part of the paragraph restrictions because of their summary and very necessary nature. We've removed citations from the opinion for ease of reading (except, in this particular case, regarding some dictionary definitions), but may link to important cases cited or information about them. Italics indicate WJI insertions except for case names and emphasis added by the opinion writer, all of which also are italicized.
The case: Rebecca Clarke v. Wisconsin Elections Commission
Majority: Justice Jill J. Karofsky (51 pages), joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet, and Janet Protasiewicz
Dissents: Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler (89 pages), Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley (56 pages plus an appendix of 11 pages), and Justice Brian Hagedorn (22 pages)
We hold that the contiguity requirements in Article IV, Sections 4 and 5 mean what they say: Wisconsin's state legislative districts must be composed of physically adjoining territory. The constitutional text and our precedent support this common-sense interpretation of contiguity. Because the current state legislative districts contain separate, detached territory and therefore violate the constitution's contiguity requirements, we enjoin the Wisconsin Elections Commission from using the current legislative maps in future elections. We also reject each of Respondents' defenses. We decline, however, to (invalidate) the results of the 2022 state senate elections.
Because we enjoin the current state legislative district maps from future use, remedial maps must be drawn prior to the 2024 elections. The legislature has the primary authority and responsibility to draw new legislative maps. Accordingly, we urge the legislature to pass legislation creating new maps that satisfy all requirements of state and federal law. We are mindful, however, that the legislature may decline to pass legislation creating new maps, or that the governor may exercise his veto power. Consequently, to ensure maps are adopted in time for the 2024 election, we will proceed toward adopting remedial maps unless and until new maps are enacted through the legislative process. At the conclusion of this opinion, we set forth the process and relevant considerations that will guide the court in adopting new state legislative districts—and safeguard the constitutional rights of all Wisconsin voters.
Following the 2020 census, the legislature passed legislation creating new state legislative district maps, the governor vetoed the legislation, and the legislature did not attempt to override his veto. Because the legislature and the governor reached an impasse, the 2011 maps remained in effect, even though they no longer complied with the Wisconsin or United States Constitutions due to population shifts.
Billie Johnson and other Wisconsin voters asked this court to redraw the unconstitutional 2011 maps. In that case, we first confirmed that the 2011 maps no longer complied with the state and federal requirement that districts be equally populated (the "Johnson I" decision). Next, we identified the principles that would guide the court in adopting new maps, including the proposition that remedial maps "'should reflect the least change' necessary for the maps to comport with relevant legal requirements." We then invited the parties to submit proposed state legislative maps for our review. Of the proposed maps, we adopted the Governor's (the "Johnson II" decision). The United States Supreme Court summarily reversed that decision, holding that the Governor's proposed legislative maps violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because they increased the number of majority-Black districts in the Milwaukee area without sufficient justification. On remand, we adopted the legislative maps proposed by the Legislature (the "Johnson III" decision).
In this case, the Clarke Petitioners filed a petition for leave to commence an original action challenging the maps adopted in Johnson III, arguing that they: (1) are an extreme partisan gerrymander; (2) do not comply with the contiguity requirements contained in Article IV, Sections 4 and 5 of the Wisconsin Constitution; and (3) were created via a process that violated the separation of powers. We granted leave in part, allowing Petitioners' contiguity and separation-of-powers claims to proceed, while declining to review the issue of extreme partisan gerrymandering. We explained that although Petitioners' extreme- partisan-gerrymandering claim presented an important and unresolved legal question, we declined to address it due to the need for extensive fact-finding.
The court heard oral argument on Nov. 21, 2023.
We start our analysis with Article IV, Section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which sets the ground rules for how Wisconsin Assembly members are elected and how their districts are to be established. . . . Section 4 imposes three separate requirements for establishing assembly districts. The districts must: (1) "be bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines;" (2) "consist of contiguous territory;" and (3) "be in as compact form as practicable."
Article IV, Section 5 sets out rules for how senators are elected and how their districts are established . . . . Section 5 imposes three requirements on senate districts. The senate districts must (1) be "single districts;" (2) be "of convenient contiguous territory;" and (3) not divide any assembly districts.
. . . . It is immediately apparent, using practically any dictionary, that contiguous means "touching" or "in actual contact." See, e.g., Contiguous, Black's Law Dictionary, (11th ed. 2019) ("Touching at a point or along a boundary."); Contiguous, Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed. 1989) ("touching, in actual contact, next in space; meeting at a common boundary, bordering, adjoining"); Contiguous, Merriam Webster Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) ("being in actual contact: touching along a boundary or at a point"). These definitions make clear that contiguous territory is territory that is touching, or in actual contact. In other words, a district must be physically intact such that a person could travel from one point in the district to any other point in the district without crossing district lines.
We find additional support for this understanding of contiguity in historical definitions and early Wisconsin districting practices. In examining historical definitions of the word "contiguous," we see that the definition has not changed since the Wisconsin Constitution was adopted. See Contiguous, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756) ("meeting so as to touch; bordering upon each other; not separate"); Contiguous, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) ("touching: meeting or joining at the surface or border"). Turning to early districting practices, the first state legislative districts, set forth in the Wisconsin Constitution, were all physically contiguous. Additionally, the constitution specified that if existing towns were split or new towns were created, the districts had to remain physically intact. In short, historical definitions and practices related to contiguity bolster our conclusion that contiguity does indeed require "touching," or "actual contact."
Respondents assert that a district with separate, detached territory can still be contiguous—so long as the detached territory is a "municipal island" (meaning portions of municipal land separated from the main body of the municipality, usually created by annexation) and the main body of the municipality is located elsewhere in the district. The Legislature refers to this as "political contiguity." Adopting the concept of political contiguity would essentially require us to read an exception into the contiguity requirements—that district territory must be physically touching, except when the territory is a detached section of a municipality located in the same district.
We decline to read a political contiguity exception into Article IV's contiguity requirements. The text contains no such exception. Both Section 4 and Section 5 include the discrete requirement that districts be composed of contiguous territory. There are no exceptions to contiguity in the constitution's text, either overt or fairly implied. True, assembly districts must also be "in as compact form as practicable" and "bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines," but the existence of additional requirements does not constrain or limit the separate requirement that district territory be contiguous.
The court then discussed two prior cases, from 1880 and 1892, that confirmed the court’s understanding of contiguity.
None of the parties disputes that the current legislative maps contain districts with discrete pieces of territory that are not in actual contact with the rest of the district. We . . . look at the example of Assembly District 47 (in yellow) which plainly includes separate, detached parts:
The court provided additional examples with images.
In total, at least 50 assembly districts and at least 20 senate districts include separate, detached parts. That is to say, a majority of the districts in both the assembly and the senate do not consist of "contiguous territory" within the meaning of Article IV, Section 4, nor are they "of convenient contiguous territory" within the meaning of Article IV, Section 5. Therefore, we hold that the non-contiguous legislative districts violate the Wisconsin Constitution.
As we declared above, the current legislative maps contain districts that violate Article IV, Sections 4 and 5 of the Wisconsin Constitution. At least 50 of 99 assembly districts and at least 20 of 33 senate districts contain territory completely disconnected from the rest of the district. Given this pervasiveness, a remedy modifying the boundaries of the non-contiguous districts will cause a ripple effect across other areas of the state as populations are shifted throughout. Consequently, it is necessary to enjoin the use of the legislative maps as a whole, rather than only the non-contiguous districts. We therefore enjoin the Wisconsin Elections Commission from using the current legislative maps in all future elections. Accordingly, remedial legislative district maps must be adopted. We recognize that next year's legislative elections are fast-approaching, and that remedial maps must be adopted in time for the fall primary in August 2024. With that in mind, the following section first describes the role of the court in the remedial process. Second, we articulate the principles the court will follow when adopting remedial maps. . . .
It is essential to emphasize that the legislature, not this court, has the primary authority and responsibility for drawing assembly and senate districts. Therefore, when an existing plan is declared unconstitutional, it is "appropriate, whenever practicable, to afford a reasonable opportunity for the legislature to meet constitutional requirements by adopting a substitute measure." There may be exceptions to this general rule, but we decline Petitioners' request to apply one here. Should the legislative process produce a map that remedies the contiguity issues discussed above, there would be no need for this court to adopt remedial maps.
We remain cognizant, however, of the possibility that the legislative process may not result in remedial maps. In such an instance, it is this court's role to adopt valid remedial maps. The United States Supreme Court has specifically recognized the ability of a state judiciary to remedy unconstitutional legislative districts by crafting new remedial maps. And this court has exercised such authority in the past when faced with unconstitutional maps. If the legislative process does not result in remedial legislative maps, then it will be the job of this court to adopt remedial maps.
The court then rejected and overruled the “least change” approach used in the Johnson cases (meaning that remedial maps should reflect the least change from the prior maps) because the court had failed to agree on what "least change" meant and the method was shown to be “unworkable in practice.”
The following principles will guide our process in adopting remedial legislative maps. First, the remedial maps must comply with population equality requirements. State and federal law require a state's population to be distributed equally amongst legislative districts with only minor deviations. When it comes to population equality, courts are held to a higher standard than state legislatures as we have a "judicial duty to 'achieve the goal of population equality with little more than de minimis variation.'"
Second, districts must meet the basic requirements set out in Article IV of the Wisconsin Constitution. Assembly districts must be (a) bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines; (b) composed of contiguous territory; and (c) in as compact form as practicable. Senate districts must be composed of "convenient contiguous territory." Additionally, districts must be single-member districts that meet the numbering and nesting requirements set out in Article IV, Sections 2, 4, and 5.
Third, remedial maps must comply with all applicable federal law. In addition to the population equality requirement discussed above, maps must comply with the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Fourth, the court will consider other traditional districting criteria not specifically outlined in the Wisconsin or United States Constitution, but still commonly considered by courts tasked with formulating maps. These other traditional districting criteria include reducing municipal splits and preserving communities of interest. These criteria will not supersede constitutionally mandated criteria, such as equal population requirements, but may be considered when evaluating submitted maps.
Fifth, we will consider partisan impact when evaluating remedial maps. When granting the petition for original action that commenced this case, we declined to hear the issue of whether extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Wisconsin Constitution. As such, we do not decide whether a party may challenge an enacted map on those grounds.
However, that does not mean that we will ignore partisan impact in adopting remedial maps. Unlike the legislative and executive branches, which are political by nature, this court must remain politically neutral. We do not have free license to enact maps that privilege one political party over another. Our political neutrality must be maintained regardless of whether a case involves an extreme partisan gerrymandering challenge. As we have stated, "judges should not select a plan that seeks partisan advantage—that seeks to change the ground rules so that one party can do better than it would do under a plan drawn up by persons having no political agenda—even if they would not be entitled to invalidate an enacted plan that did so." Other courts have held the same.
It bears repeating that courts can, and should, hold themselves to a different standard than the legislature regarding the partisanship of remedial maps. As a politically neutral and independent institution, we will take care to avoid selecting remedial maps designed to advantage one political party over another. Importantly, however, it is not possible to remain neutral and independent by failing to consider partisan impact entirely. As the Supreme Court (has) recognized . . . "this politically mindless approach may produce, whether intended or not, the most grossly gerrymandered results." As such, partisan impact will necessarily be one of many factors we will consider in adopting remedial legislative maps, and like the traditional districting criteria discussed above, consideration of partisan impact will not supersede constitutionally mandated criteria such as equal apportionment or contiguity.
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