By Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel
Madison - State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen reversed course Monday by dropping an appeal of a decision on legislative boundaries and agreeing to pay the plaintiffs more than $185,000 in taxpayer money.
Just over two months ago, the Republican attorney general insisted the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was essential and said he would be personally involved in overseeing it. But on Monday, he gave up on trying to have the nation’s highest court overturn a decision that set different boundaries for two Assembly districts than what legislators who initially drew the lines wanted.
Under the deal filed in court Monday, the state will drop its appeal and pay $185,500 to immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, who sued the state over the maps. The group prevailed in March before a panel of three federal judges in its arguments that newly drawn boundaries for Assembly Districts 8 and 9 on Milwaukee’s south side violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
The payment will bring taxpayer costs for the maps to over $1.5 million, and that number could yet climb.
The settlement does not apply to a separate group that sued over the maps. That group of Democrats sued over a host of issues, but lost on everything but the boundaries of the 8th and 9th Assembly Districts. That group has not ruled out the possibility of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the two sides disagree as to whether they would even have an opportunity to do that.
Every 10 years, states must draw new legislative and congressional districts to account for changes in population detected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Those new maps often cause political and legal fights because the results determine which party has an upper hand in elections for a decade.
Republicans controlled all of Wisconsin’s state government last year, and they drew maps that helped them. The group of Democrats sued before the maps were even unveiled, and when Voces later sued the two cases were combined.
The case went before three federal judges in Milwaukee, two appointed by Republican presidents and one appointed by a Democratic president. They unanimously ruled the Assembly maps on Milwaukee’s south side violated the voting rights of Latinos by dispersing them into two districts rather than concentrating them in one.
The court then approved new lines for the districts drawn by Voces and the Democrats.
The panel of judges, however, ruled against arguments by the Democrats that Republicans had unnecessarily moved too many voters around the state from one district to another.
When the panel issued its March ruling, the Republican attorney general described it as a victory for the state, saying the maps lawmakers drew “have largely been vindicated.” But a month later he announced he was appealing the decision because having the court redraw part of the maps was “a serious matter.”
“I believe, and the reason I have appealed is, that the judiciary overstepped their bounds,” he said in April.
But on Monday, Van Hollen spokeswoman Dana Brueck said other issues were at play as well.
“Attorney General Van Hollen had said that any time a federal court rejects a state redistricting statute, and decides to redraw or adjust a legislative district, it is a serious matter and appropriate for appellate review,” she said in a statement. “That principle was, and is, important. But there are other principles that also are important, such as limiting the state’s financial exposure and making sure that elections in November and afterward are not carried out under a cloud of uncertainty.”
Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller of Monona said he was pleased Van Hollen was dropping the appeal because it would have been costly, but that he remains disappointed about how Republicans handled redistricting.
“I’m glad the attorney general is going to stop wasting more taxpayer money trying to defend the illegal, gerrymandered maps developed in secret,” Miller said in a statement. “It is outrageous that over $1.5 million was spent on redistricting when Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature.”
The $185,500 being paid to Voces comes on top of other costs to taxpayers. Republican lawmakers have committed $400,000 in taxpayer money to Michael Best & Friedrich and the Troupis Law Office for their work in helping draw the lines. Separately, Gov. Scott Walker hired Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren to assist Van Hollen with the litigation, and that firm was paid $925,000 for that work.
The other group that sued is also seeking more than $475,000 in attorney fees and costs.
Brueck argued the parts of the case the state won can no longer be appealed because the period for appeal has passed. But Doug Poland, an attorney for the group of Democrats, disputed that, saying the three-judge panel has not yet issued its final judgment and that Van Hollen in April had prematurely filed its notice of appeal. The group has not decided whether to take the parts of the case it lost to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
“At this point, all options are on the table,” Poland said.
He said Van Hollen’s action on Monday highlights the error Republicans made in drawing the maps as they did.
“I think that their decision to withdraw certainly vindicates the filing of the lawsuit in the first place,” Poland said. “The Legislature violated the federal civil rights law and again the taxpayers had to pick up the cost for that process.”
The court document filed Monday said the state is dropping its appeal with prejudice, meaning it cannot re-file it.
Federal redistricting cases are unusual in that they are heard initially by a three-judge panel. Appeals go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the high court is required to take the cases.