By Kevin Binversie
When the smoke clears, Wisconsin taxpayers may be on the hook for some $1.5 million in legal fees for litigation over the state’s new redistricting maps.
Why such a high price tag for legal services? Because Democratic and Republican legislative leaders saw tax dollars as nothing but play money when drawing up the new legislative boundaries.
Like some astronomical phenomena, redistricting comes about once every 10 years — to fulfill the constitutional requirement of the census. Only the politically naïve view it as a non-political act. Like the legislative agenda, the party in the majority has control over how new legislative districts are redrawn. What’s at stake for both sides is the possibility of decade-long dominance of one or both chambers of a legislative body.
Even so, the latest fight over Wisconsin’s redistricting map was unusual.
First, because just one party — the Republicans — controls the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, this was the first time since 1983 in which the map wasn’t drawn by a panel of federal judges.
Second, the politicking around redistricting began before votes were even cast in 2010, back when Democrats still had complete control over the legislative and executive branches. Preparing to maintain their majorities, Democrats spent nearly $190,000 in taxpayer dollars on the Milwaukee-based law firm O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong, & Laing to act as legal advisers for redistricting purposes.
Republicans hired their own attorneys in the run-up to redistricting in 2010, but the majority Democrats refused to authorize an appropriation to pay for them.
After the election, Republicans acted no better than Democrats. They fired the Democrats’ lawyers and replaced them with their own — Milwaukee-based Michael Best & Friedrich. It’s estimated the state will have to pay Michael Best more than $400,000 in legal fees. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has paid Milwaukee law firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren $925,000 to argue the redistricting lawsuit case before a federal district court in Milwaukee.
No one can fault the parties for lawyering-up to deal with the issue. The redistricting sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act can be a legal minefield.
But did both sides really need to hire lawyers before the 2010 election? Doing so meant that long before anyone went to the ballot box, long before we knew the makeup of the next Legislature, the partisan gamesmanship was well under way. Did a group of Democrats need to file a lawsuit to kill the maps before they were even introduced? Did Republicans really have to make their members sign “secrecy pacts” saying they approved the maps and agreed not to talk about them? Did Republicans have to play games during the discovery portion of the redistricting trial by trying to hide email communications behind attorney-client privilege in the course of drawing Assembly Districts 8 and 9?
In the end, however, hand it to the Republicans. Their lawyers created a series of maps in which 97 of 99 Assembly districts, all 33 state Senate districts and all eight congressional districts cleared a federal three-judge panel in Milwaukee. That’s just two corrections out of 140 legislative districts — a 98.6 percent grade if you’re a schoolteacher, and a solid A.
Never mind the near-perfect performance: Democrats continue to demand the redrawing of all maps — especially after the resignation of Wausau Republican Pam Galloway resulted in a 16-16 tie in the state Senate — and not just those for Assembly Districts 8 and 9 ordered by the judges.
Is there anything wrong in that? The entire process shows that a lot of the so-called smart people in Wisconsin politics did some very, very stupid things during the process. Ultimately, they won't pay for that stupidity. You will.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.