The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court sides with Wisconsin Republicans, throws out Democratic-drawn legislative maps favorable to Black residents

The justices left in place congressional maps that had been challenged by Republicans

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out Wisconsin state legislative maps drawn by the state’s Democratic governor and adopted by its highest court, a win for Republicans who control the legislature.

In a separate case, the high court refused a request from Republicans to block a new congressional map that the Wisconsin court had selected.

Republicans who control the legislature filed an emergency request for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the legislature redistricting case, saying Gov. Tony Evers shifted too many voters to create an additional majority-Black district that Democrats said was required by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA).

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The decision was another in which the court majority expressed skepticism about efforts to redraw maps to boost minority chances. But as a practical matter in Wisconsin, it might not drastically change outcomes in the fall elections. Republicans have the advantage in maps drawn by the legislature and by Evers.

In their unsigned opinion, the justices said the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision was flawed. The state court “committed legal error in its application of decisions of this Court regarding the relationship between the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and the VRA,” the opinion said.

The Wisconsin court “believed that it had to conclude only that the VRA might support race-based districting — not that the statute required it,” the opinion said. “Our precedent instructs otherwise.”

The justices said the court should have considered “whether a race-neutral alternative that did not add a seventh majority-black district would deny black voters equal political opportunity.”

The case came to the U.S. Supreme Court on an emergency basis — what critics call its “shadow docket” — in which justices make decisions without oral argument or extensive briefing.

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That was a mistake, according to Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the only two to note their dissent.

“The Court’s action today is unprecedented,” Sotomayor wrote. “In an emergency posture, the Court summarily overturns a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision resolving a conflict over the State’s redistricting, a decision rendered after a 5-month process involving all interested stakeholders.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion said the Wisconsin court “is free to take additional evidence if it prefers to reconsider the Governor’s maps rather than choose from among the other submissions. Any new analysis, however, must comply with our equal protection jurisprudence.”

While Wisconsin is considered a battleground state in presidential politics, its Republican-dominated legislature drew maps in 2011 that cemented party advantage. After a stalemate between the legislature and governor this year, Republicans won an initial battle at the Wisconsin Supreme Court when its elected justices said it would impose the map that made the fewest changes from that 2011 redistricting.

But then a different majority said Evers’s maps were better. The most controversial element was redrawing districts in the Milwaukee area to provide a seventh district with a majority of minority voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted that even the Wisconsin court expressed some trepidation.

“We cannot say for certain on this record,” Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote for the majority, that the VRA requires “seven majority-Black assembly districts.” But “based on our assessment of the totality of the circumstances and given the discretion afforded states implementing the act, we conclude the governor’s configuration is permissible,” he wrote.

The majority worried that the map created by the legislature diluted the power of Black voters by packing them into a smaller number of districts.

According to the governor’s office, the Evers congressional map creates four seats likely to be won by the GOP, two by Democrats and two that are competitive. Wisconsin currently has five Republican members of the U.S. House and three Democrats.

Primaries are scheduled for Aug. 9.