Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. September 11, 2023.
Editorial: Wisconsin districting fracas didn’t have to happen
The rising noise about a potential attempt to impeach Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz is concerning. There are several reasons we dislike the idea, beginning with the fact she hasn’t heard a case yet on the court, but the truly frustrating thing is that it shouldn’t be this way in the first place.
The case for her impeachment, such as it is, points to almost $10 million Protasiewicz received during her campaign for the court from the Democratic Party. It’s not wholly unreasonable to think such donations could influence a judge. But only one of the court’s justices hasn’t accepted similar donations, albeit at smaller amounts.
The absence of similar outrage at Justice Brian Hagedorn ($150,000 from the state Republican Party), Rebecca Bradley ($70,000 from the state Republicans) or Jill Karofsky ($1.3 million from the Wisconsin Democrats) points to what the issue really is. Protasiewicz is the potential tipping vote on a case about redistricting.
Wisconsin’s heavily-gerrymandered districts give Republicans an unearned edge in Madison. Everyone knows it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the party in the majority always tries to draw the maps to benefit itself. That’s generally the case. The imbalance in these maps as compared to the voter breakdown statewide is significantly more than what most legislatures tilt toward, though.
Hypocrisy in government is nothing new, of course. Wisconsin’s Legislature rejected efforts to create clearer standards for when justices must recuse themselves — there are currently none with regard to campaign donors — in 2017. Creation of such standards could have taken place at any time, during any legislative session. It did not.
It shouldn’t be this way, and there are alternatives that demonstrate this whole issue can be avoided. That’s the thing that frustrates us here. Generations of Wisconsin politicians have put potential political gains ahead of good government, and we’re paying the price with this debate.
Gerrymandering is fundamentally in opposition to the ideals of our republic. It is a base attempt to enshrine permanent political control for the benefit of a single party. It is a blot on our nation wherever it happens, be it Wisconsin’s maps or those in other states that have seen districts compared to “a broken-winged pterodactyl.”
We’ve said this before. Nonpartisan redistricting ultimately benefits everyone. In 2020, we cited the gerrymandered districts of Wisconsin in backing calls for a new approach. We did the same in 2022, when we editorialized on this issue and we stand by those statements now.
Nonpartisan districting reduces the concept of safe districts for many, making candidates less susceptible to pandering to the extremes of political partisanship. And there’s an example near us of how it can work.
Iowa uses a nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which creates maps through a five member commission. The majority leaders of the state’s house and senate each pick a member, as do the minority leaders of those bodies. Those four members then select the fifth person.
All members are barred from holding partisan public office or being an officer in a political party while they work. They can’t be an employee of state or federal legislators or have a family member who is, either. The rules for districting are simple. Don’t divide counties or cities when possible, keep districts “reasonably compact,” and balance population.
The LSA maps are subject to an up or down vote in the Legislature. While rejection is theoretically possible, it hasn’t happened.
Notably, that has not prevented Iowa, once a genuine swing state, from becoming a reliably Republican stronghold. Balanced maps don’t prevent majorities, even large ones. They simply give all parties a fair shot.
Such a system would render the current debate in Wisconsin moot. The fact such steps haven’t been taken speaks to the power of political greed.
Wisconsin State Journal. September 10, 2023.
Editorial: Stop the wild threats of impeachment, let Justice Janet Protasiewicz do her job
Rep. Travis Tranel’s constituents in Grant County helped elect Janet Protasiewicz to the Wisconsin Supreme Court last spring with 51% of the county’s vote.
Rep. Jon Plumer’s Assembly district runs through Columbia County, which favored Protasiewicz with 55% of its ballots.
Rep. Todd Novak represents most of Lafayette and Iowa counties, which backed Protasiewicz with 59% of their vote.
Are these three Republican lawmakers and their conservative colleagues who control the state Assembly really going to rush into impeachment proceedings against Justice Protasiewicz, seeking to overturn the will of the voters?
We sure hope not.
If they do, they’ll face the wrath of these very same voters for blatantly reversing the voice of the people.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, recently threatened to impeach Justice Protasiewicz, an experienced Milwaukee County judge and prosecutor, before she had even heard a single high-court case. Vos’ intimidating talk of taking her down is wildly irresponsible, undemocratic and comes off as desperate.
Elections have consequences. And Protasiewicz just won hers by more than 10 percentage points statewide over former Justice Dan Kelly, whom Vos and other fixtures of the Republican establishment supported.
Vos is threatening impeachment if Protasiewicz doesn’t recuse herself from cases involving Vos’ gerrymandered maps for Assembly and Senate voting districts. Vos knows those maps help him keep his GOP majority and stay in power.
While the two major parties collected similar numbers of votes statewide in the fall 2022 election, the Republican-controlled Legislature nonetheless maintained huge majorities of 64-35 in the Assembly and 21-11 in Senate.
Gerrymandering is the main reason why.
Following the 2020 census, Vos and Co. spent millions of tax dollars on a team of lawyers, political strategists and sophisticated computer software to draw the lines of legislative districts to his partisan advantage — and then to defend them in court. Now he’s lawyering up again at taxpayer expense to fight still more legal challenges.
The Supreme Court’s 4-3 conservative majority had pretty much allowed Republicans to shape districts however they pleased. But Protasiewicz’s victory in the April 4 election shifts control of the court to liberal-leaning justices. So Vos — the longest-serving speaker in state history — is running scared. Liberal groups already have filed two lawsuits challenging Vos’ maps, and Protasiewicz could be the deciding vote striking them down.
Vos claims Protasiewicz must recuse herself from any cases involving his maps because she called them “unfair” and “rigged” during her recent campaign. We agree Protasiewicz discussed political issues more than she should have. Judicial candidates should strive to be independent arbiters of the law and not to give the impression they are prejudging cases that might come before them.
But the gerrymandered legislative maps are indeed unfair and rigged. Protasiewicz shouldn’t be impeached for speaking the truth.
Moreover, she didn’t weigh into specifics. If fact, she has said less about redistricting cases than any other member of the court. That’s because all of the incumbents have had to rule on cases challenging the maps in the past. Nothing is wrong with that. Their jobs as high-court justices required it.
If Vos is seriously concerned about politics affecting our courts, he should stop threatening judges and instead support clear rules for when justices should leave a case because of a conflict, either real or perceived. Currently, individual justices decide for themselves if they can be fair — an incredibly loose standard.
Vos points to Protasiewicz getting millions in campaign donations from the Democratic Party, which is true. But conservative members of the court have benefited from millions in support from the Republican Party and its backers. The only ways to fix the influence of money on judicial campaigns is to limit contributions or appoint judges based on merit. Vos has opposed both solutions in the past.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who gerrymander. Democrats have rigged voting maps in states such as Illinois and Maryland where they hold power.
It doesn’t matter which party does it, it’s wrong and should stop. That’s why the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board has long favored the Iowa model for nonpartisan restricting. In Iowa, a state agency insulated from politics draws the lines to account for population changes. It does so with instructions to keep districts as compact as possible while ignoring past voting results and the impact on incumbents.
The result in Iowa has been fair, neat-looking maps that follow the lines of municipal boundaries rather than carving up communities into odd shapes for political advantage. Iowa voters enjoy more competition for legislative seats and avoid wasting millions of tax dollars on court fights.
The answer to gerrymandered maps in Wisconsin isn’t impeachment, as Tranel, Plumer and Novak should know. It’s a fair system like Iowa’s, which all three have voiced support for in the past. So have 63% of respondents (including 62% of Republicans) in a Marquette Law School poll. Only a quarter of those surveyed said the politicians should control the process.
Tranel, Plumer, Novak and others should tell Vos to drop the impeachment talk and support a real solution that Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly support.