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 up to 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.
Read part 1 (majority opinion) and part 2 (Ziegler dissent).
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)
Grassl Bradley dissent
Riding a Trojan horse named Contiguity, the majority breaches the lines of demarcation separating the judiciary from the political branches in order to transfer power from one political party to another. Alexander Hamilton forewarned us that "liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, but would have everything to fear from its union with either of the other departments." With its first opinion as an openly progressive faction, the members of the majority shed their robes, usurp the prerogatives of the legislature, and deliver the spoils to their preferred political party. These handmaidens of the Democratic Party trample the rule of law, dishonor the institution of the judiciary, and undermine democracy.
The outcome in this case was preordained with the April 2023 election of a candidate who ran on a platform of "taking a fresh look" at the "rigged" maps. As promised just two days after Protasiewicz's election, petitioners filed this case only one day after she joined the court. The majority chooses contiguity as a convenient conduit by which to toss the legislative maps adopted by this court in 2022 as a remedy for malapportionment, but any issue grounded in state law would suffice in order to insulate the majority's activism from review by the United States Supreme Court. The majority's machinations do not shield it from the Court vindicating the respondents' due process rights, however. Litigants are constitutionally entitled to have their cases heard by a fair and impartial tribunal, an issue of primary importance the majority absurdly dismisses as "underdeveloped." The parties fully briefed the due process claim, which Protasiewicz unilaterally rejected. While this court is powerless to override her recusal decision, the United States Supreme Court is not.
The majority's treatment of the remaining issue sophomorically parrots the petitioners' briefing and undermines the rule of law. The Wisconsin Constitution requires assembly districts "to consist of contiguous territory" and senate districts "of convenient contiguous territory." For fifty years, maps drawn by both Republican and Democratic legislative majorities contained districts with detached territory. State and federal courts uniformly declared such districts to be "legally contiguous even if the area around the island is part of a different district." Just last year, three members of the majority in this very case adopted maps containing districts with detached territory. This well-established legal conclusion having become politically inconvenient, the same three justices now deem the existence of such districts "striking." If this creative constitutional "problem" were so glaringly obvious, then the attorneys who neglected to raise the issue over the last five decades committed malpractice, and the federal and state judges who adopted maps with districts containing detached territory should resign for incompetency.
No one is fooled, however. The members of the majority refashion the law to achieve their political agenda. The precedent they set (if anything remains of the principle) devastates the rule of law. The Wisconsin Constitution commands redistricting to occur once every ten years. Both state and federal courts have always respected "the command in the Wisconsin Constitution not to redistrict more than once each 10 years."
The majority's machinations in this case open the door to redistricting every time court membership changes. A supreme court election in 2025 could mean Clarke (this case) is overturned, Johnson (the court’s prior redistricting case, with three decisions known as Johnson I, Johnson II, and Johnson III) is restored, and new maps adopted. In 2026 or 2027, Johnson could be overturned (again), Clarke resurrected, and new maps adopted. This cycle could repeat itself in 2028. And in 2029. And in 2030.
Upon completion of the 2020 census, the governor vetoed the redistricting plans passed by the legislature, so the court in Johnson enjoined the 2011 legislative maps that had become unconstitutionally malapportioned due to population shifts. Political impasse left the judiciary as the only branch able to act. There is absolutely no precedent for a supreme court to enjoin its own remedy one year later. Perhaps if the majority focused on studying the law rather than rushing to set its political machinations on a ridiculous fast track, it would avoid such embarrassing errors.
Every party in Johnson stipulated before we decided Johnson I that the contiguity requirements under Article IV, Sections 4 and 5 of the Wisconsin Constitution permit municipal islands detached from their assigned districts. We agreed. So did the dissenters. Every party—including the Governor—submitted maps containing municipal islands. A majority in Johnson II, selected the Governor's proposed legislative maps, municipal islands and all; three justices in this current majority blessed those maps as constitutional.
After the court decided Johnson I, the Governor, or any other petitioner who participated in the case, could have filed a motion for reconsideration on contiguity, asking the court to correct the allegedly flagrant constitutional error somehow repeatedly overlooked by countless lawyers, federal judges, and justices of this court for five decades. To no one's surprise, they instead waited for the Clarke petitioners to file this suit immediately after the makeup of the court changed, courtesy of an election bought and paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Grassl Bradley then discusses how the majority misused dictionary definitions regarding the meaning of “contiguous.”
The majority does not seem to recognize the limits of dictionaries, or the importance of acknowledging and weighing different definitions. The majority resorts to fabrication with its obviously false claim that all dictionaries define the term "contiguous" the way the majority prefers. The remarkable power to declare something unconstitutional—and forever remove it from democratic decision making—should be exercised carefully and with humility. The majority's drive-by dictionary citations exhibit a slipshod analysis.
If the current maps were unconstitutional, the only proper exercise of this court's power would be a remedy that respects the legislature's and the governor's constitutionally prescribed roles in the redistricting process. If the members of the majority were acting as a court rather than a super legislature of four, they would modify the maps only to the extent necessary to comply with the law. Specifically, if the majority wished to remedy only detached municipal islands, as it professes, it would adopt the respondents' proposal and redraw only those districts containing detached territory. The majority refuses to do so, with nothing more than a single sentence explanation in which the majority says a more modest remedy would "cause a ripple effect across other areas of the state" so new maps are "necessary." The majority offers zero support for this conclusory assertion because none exists. The majority instead dispenses with the existing maps in order to confer an advantage on its preferred political party with new ones.
The majority abandons the court's least-change approach adopted in Johnson I in order to fashion legislative maps that "intrude upon the constitutional prerogatives of the political branches and unsettle the constitutional allocation of power." The least-change approach in Johnson I guaranteed the court would ground any reapportionment decisions in the law alone, leaving the political decisions of redistricting to the political branches where they belong. The majority's decision to discard the judicially restrained methodology of Johnson I unveils its motivation to redraw the legislative maps for the benefit of Democratic state legislative candidates. By design, the majority's transparently political approach will reallocate political power in Wisconsin via a draconian remedy, under the guise of a constitutional "error" easily rectified by modest modifications to existing maps.
As the respondents proposed, any contiguity violation could be remedied by simply dissolving municipal islands into their surrounding assembly districts. The majority dismisses the idea without explaining why the maps must instead be redrawn in their entirety. To say the quiet part out loud, confining the court's remedy to districts with municipal islands would deprive the majority of its desired political outcome. Its overreach flouts not only Johnson I but also black-letter law limiting the judiciary's remedial powers.
Buried at the end of its opinion, the majority identifies "partisan impact" as the fifth and last "redistricting principle" it will consider in reallocating political power in this state. Its placement disguises the primacy this factor will have in the majority's schemes. The majority neglects to offer a single measure, metric, standard, or criterion by which it will gauge "partisan impact." Most convenient for the majority's endgame, there aren't any, lending the majority unfettered license to design remedial maps fulfilling the majority's purely political objectives.
In considering "partisan impact," the majority acts without authority. Unlike other state constitutions, "[n]othing in the Wisconsin Constitution authorizes this court to recast itself as a redistricting commission in order 'to make [its] own political judgment about how much representation particular political parties deserve——based on the votes of their supporters——and to rearrange the challenged districts to achieve that end.'" "The people have never consented to the Wisconsin judiciary deciding what constitutes a 'fair' partisan divide; seizing such power would encroach on the constitutional prerogatives of the political branches."
Redistricting is the quintessential "political thicket." We should not decide such cases unless, as in 2021, we must. In this case, we need not enter the thicket. Unlike the majority, I would not address the merits. A collateral attack on a supreme court judgment, disguised as an original action petition, would ordinarily be dismissed upon arrival. Allowing petitioners' stale claims to proceed makes a mockery of our judicial system, politicizes the court, and incentivizes litigants to sit on manufactured redistricting claims in the hopes that a later, more favorable makeup of the court will accept their arguments. The doctrines of laches and judicial estoppel exist to prevent such manipulation of the judicial system.
No matter how today's decision is sold, it can be boiled down to this: the court finds the tenuous legal hook it was looking for to achieve its ultimate goal—the redistribution of political power in Wisconsin. Call it "promoting democracy" or "ending gerrymandering" if you'd like; but this is good, old-fashioned power politics. The court puts its thumb on the scale for one political party over another because four members of the court believe the policy choices made in the last redistricting law were harmful and must be undone. This decision is not the product of neutral, principled judging.
The matter of legislative redistricting was thoroughly litigated and resolved after the 2020 census. We adopted a judicial remedy (new maps) and ordered that future elections be conducted using these maps until the legislature and governor enact new ones. That remedy remains in place, and under Wisconsin law, is final. Now various parties, new and old, want a mulligan. But litigation doesn't work that way. Were this case about almost any other legal matter, the answer would be cut-and-dried. We would unanimously dismiss the case and reject this impermissible collateral attack on a prior, final decision.
So why are the ordinary methods of deciding cases now thrown by the wayside? Because a majority of the court imagines it has some moral authority, dignified by a black robe, to create "fair maps" through judicial decree. To be sure, one can in good faith disagree with Johnson's holding that adhering as closely as possible to the last maps enacted into law—an approach called "least change"—is the most appropriate use of our remedial powers. And the claim here that the constitution's original meaning requires the territory in all legislative districts to be physically contiguous is probably correct, notwithstanding decades of nearly unquestioned practice otherwise. But that does not give litigants a license to ignore procedure and initiate a new case to try arguments they had every opportunity to raise in the last action, but did not. Procedural rules exist for a reason, and we should follow them. As we have previously explained, "Litigation rules and processes matter to the rule of law just as much as rendering ultimate decisions based on the law. Ignoring the former to reach the latter portends of favoritism to certain litigants and outcomes." Indeed it does.
The majority heralds a new approach to judicial decision-making. It abandons prior-stated principles regarding finality in litigation, standing, stare decisis, and other normal restraints on judicial will—all in favor of expediency. But principles adopted when convenient, and ignored when inconvenient, are not principles at all. It is precisely when one's principles are tested and costly—yet are kept nonetheless—that they prove themselves truly held. The unvarnished truth is that four of my colleagues deeply dislike maps that give Republicans what they view as an inappropriate partisan advantage. Alas, when certain desired results are in reach, fidelity to prior ideals now seems . . . a bit less important than before. No matter how pressing the problem may seem, that is no excuse for abandoning the rules of judicial process that make this institution a court of law.
The majority's outcome-focused decision-making in this case will delight many. A whole cottage industry of lawyers, academics, and public policy groups searching for some way to police partisan gerrymandering will celebrate. My colleagues will be saluted by the media, honored by the professoriate, and cheered by political activists. But after the merriment subsides, the sober reality will set in. Without legislative resolution, Wisconsin Supreme Court races will be a perpetual contest between political forces in search of political power, who now know that four members of this court have assumed the authority to bestow it. A court that has long been accused of partisanship will now be enmeshed in it, with no end in sight. Rather than keep our role in redistricting narrow and circumspect, the majority seizes vast new powers for itself. We can only hope that this once great court will see better days in the future. I respectfully dissent.
(T)he majority falls woefully short in supporting its conclusion that the parties met the requirements for standing. "Standing is the foundational principle that those who seek to invoke the court's power to remedy a wrong must face a harm which can be remedied by the exercise of judicial power." Courts do not have the power to "weigh in on issues whenever the respective members of the bench find it desirable." As three members of today's majority have previously opined, "standing is important . . . because it reins in unbridled attempts to go beyond the circumscribed boundaries that define the proper role of courts."
The Governor's legal positions throughout this redistricting litigation saga are astonishing; any other litigant in any other lawsuit would be promptly dismissed from the case. In Johnson, the Governor initially argued that the constitution's contiguity requirement mandated physical contiguity, just like the petitioners argue in this case. Then, the Governor changed course and agreed with all the other parties that keeping municipalities together did not violate the contiguity requirement. We agreed and so held, and invited map proposals consistent with our decision. The Governor then submitted proposed remedial maps with municipal islands—the very thing the Governor now argues violates the constitution! And in briefing regarding the other map proposals, which also contained municipal islands, the Governor never questioned their legality—even though he was invited to address any and all legal deficiencies in those proposals.
The Governor's flip-flopping is classic claim preclusion. The Governor came before this court to litigate how to remedy malapportionment; argued that contiguity permits municipal islands; submitted maps (that this court initially adopted) containing dozens of municipal islands; and now, in a subsequent action, complains that this court's remedy violated the constitution because its map contained municipal islands. This argument was litigated in Johnson. And even if it wasn't, it obviously could have been litigated. If the legislature's proposed maps that we ultimately adopted violated the contiguity requirements, the Governor could have said so. He did not; no one did. The Governor is barred by claim preclusion from litigating the issues before us again.
Given this, I do not see how the court can bypass the voter standing problems by relying on the Governor's purported authority to challenge a districting plan. Even if the Governor has standing to litigate on behalf of Wisconsinites to ensure a districting plan complies with the constitution, this does not end the matter. The question the majority must answer—but does not—is whether the Governor has the right to litigate on behalf of Wisconsin voters over and over again, taking different positions each time, until he gets the result he wants. The ordinary application of claim preclusion prohibits the Governor from relitigating the issues he either raised or could have raised during the last litigation. The majority's standing decision—resting on a party that should be dismissed——once again looks like an outcome in search of a theory.
Next, the majority ignores the impropriety of the court issuing an injunction on our own injunction. The majority enjoins the Wisconsin Elections Commission from using the legislative maps that we, just 20 months ago, mandated they use. I've never seen anything quite like it. The general rule is that judgments—and injunctions along with them—are final and, absent fraud, cannot be collaterally attacked. This case is exactly that—an impermissible collateral attack on a prior, final case.
The majority's response is that courts regularly modify prior injunctions in redistricting cases without reopening old cases. This is true, but only because there is an intervening event every ten years: the U.S. Census. And following completion of the census, the constitution requires that population shifts be accounted for afresh. So when courts issue a new injunction in new redistricting cases, they do so because the law provides that every districting plan, whether adopted by a court or the legislature, must be updated following the census. That is not the case here.
(T)he majority says "partisan impact" will guide its decision in selecting new remedial maps. But what does this mean? Should the maps maximize the number of competitive districts? Should the maps seek to achieve something close to proportionate representation? Should the maps pick some reasonable number of acceptable Republican and Democratic-leaning seats in each legislative chamber? I have no idea, and neither do the parties. The court nonetheless invites the submission of maps motivated by partisan goals, just as the petitioners hoped. And with a certain amount of gusto, the majority insists it is being neutral by openly seeking maps aimed at tilting the partisan balance in the legislature. The court announces it does not have "free license to enact maps that privilege one political party over another," all the while obliging the wishes of litigants who openly seek to privilege one political party over another. The irony could not be any thicker.
The court does not provide any meaningful guidance to the parties on how to satisfy its "political impact" criteria. No standards, no metrics, nothing. Instead, it appears the majority wishes to hide behind two "consultants" who will make recommendations on which maps are preferable. Those consultants will presumably use some standards to make this kind of judgment,14 but the majority will not permit them to be subject to discovery or witness examination.15 Like the great and powerful Oz, our consultants will dispense wisdom without allowing the parties to see and question what is really behind the curtain. And at the end of this, the consultants will offer options from which the court can choose. This attempt at insulating the court from being transparent about its decisional process is hiding in plain sight.
The court also fails to interact with the constitutional requirement that districts "be bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines." Currently, districts that are not physically contiguous are that way because the legislature (and courts) have attempted to comply with the requirement that counties, towns, and wards not be split—thus, keeping municipal islands in the same legislative district as the rest of the municipality. The court now determines that strict compliance with contiguity is required, but it ignores how that may be in tension with the equally required constitutional command to keep county, town, and ward lines sacrosanct. While absolute compliance with the "bounded by" clause is impossible given the one-person, one-vote decisions of the United States Supreme Court, a return to a more exacting constitutional standard would likely prohibit running districts across county lines, or breaking up towns or wards (of which municipalities are composed) unless necessary to comply with Supreme Court precedent. This could conflict with strict physical contiguity.
Although this litigation is not yet over, it is clear to me that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is not well equipped to undertake redistricting cases without a set of rules governing the process. In (a prior case), this court recognized the need for special procedures governing future redistricting cases. We received a rule petition seeking to do exactly that prior to Johnson, but this court could not come to an agreement about what such a process would look like or whether we should have one. I believed then, and am now fully convinced, that some formalized process is desperately needed before we are asked to do this again.
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