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US Supreme Court tackles Wis. political boundaries

The U.S. Supreme Court building is pictured in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15. Reuters/Carlos Barria/File Photo

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up Wisconsin's appeal of a lower court ruling that state Republican lawmakers violated the U.S. Constitution when they redrew electoral maps for the partisan aim of hobbling Democrats in legislative races.

The justices will review a November ruling that the Republican-led legislature's redrawing of state legislative districts in 2011 amounted to "an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander," a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage.

"The federal trial court found that Wisconsin citizens' rights were violated and that the only solution was a new district maps in time for the 2018 election," said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit. "This request in front of the Supreme Court isn't designed to help the people of Wisconsin. It's designed to help the party in power stay there, even through unconstitutional means."

A panel of three federal judges in Madison ruled 2-1 that the way Republicans redrew the districts violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection under the law and free speech by undercutting the ability of Democratic voters to turn their votes into seats in Wisconsin's legislature.

"We filed this suit because our rights were being violated, and a federal trial court agreed," said Bill Whitford, a retired law professor who serves as lead plaintiff. "They are trying to accomplish by delay what they couldn't prove in court."

The Supreme Court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination, as it did May 22 when it found that Republican legislators in North Carolina had drawn two electoral districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters.

But the justices have not thrown out state electoral maps drawn simply to give one party an advantage over another.

A Supreme Court ruling faulting the Wisconsin redistricting plan could have far-reaching consequences for the redrawing of electoral districts due after the 2020 U.S. census. State and federal legislative district boundaries are reconfigured every decade after the census so that each one holds about same number of people.

"I am thrilled the Supreme Court has granted our request to review the redistricting decision and that Wisconsin will have an opportunity to defend its redistricting process," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a prepared statement Monday. "As I have said before, our redistricting process was entirely lawful and constitutional, and the district court should be reversed."

Under the Wisconsin redistricting plan, Republicans were able to amplify their voting power, gaining more seats than their percentage of the statewide vote would suggest. For example, in 2012, the Republican Party received about 49 percent of the vote but won 60 of the 99 seats in the state Assembly. In 2014, the party garnered 52 percent of the vote and 63 state Assembly seats.

The Superior Telegram contributed to this report.