Governor Scott Walker signed Wisconsin's newest redistricting maps into law on August 9, 2011. The maps had drawn criticism when they were released to the public one month before, on July 8. Democrats in the legislature criticized Republicans for not allowing them input and many observers poked fun at the contorted districts that gave Republicans an edge. Redistricting is largely a partisan process, and the party in charge works hard to draw maps that favor their members. A short five days after the maps were released, the legislature held the first and only public hearing on them.
Organizations representing communities of interest argued that they did not have time to interpret the impact of the new maps on their constituents. "Communities of interest" are voting blocks usually represented together because of their close geography, or social and economic interests such as transportation, culture, or jobs.
After the maps were passed by both houses and were signed by the governor, a group of citizens filed a federal lawsuit charging that the new maps violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and would disenfranchise upwards of 300,000 Wisconsin citizens. A three-judge panel was assigned to hear the suit.
Beyond the controversy surrounding the maps themselves, the lawsuit filed by Voces de la Frontera has uncovered new evidence of a coordinated effort by Republican leadership to violate open meetings law while creating the maps.
Complaint Filed with Local District Attorney
On February 8, Voces de la Frontera, a group that advocates for the Latino community of Wisconsin, filed an official complaint with the Dane County District Attorney's office accusing Republicans in the State Legislature of violating the State Constitution and the state's Open Meetings Laws in the process of creating the redistricting maps.
According to documents released as part of the ongoing lawsuit, the Republican leadership of the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly organized secret meetings with nearly every Republican legislator while researching and developing new district maps. In an attempt to evade the requirements of Wisconsin's open meetings and records laws, the work was carried out in the offices of the law firm Michael, Best, and Friedrich, LLC., under the supervision of attorney Eric McLeod.
Eric McLeod, the attorney overseeing the redistricting process has been under scrutiny because he provided free legal counsel to Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gabelman, who later voted in the law firm's favor during the contentious collective bargaining case, instead of recusing himself. McLeod and his firm have charged the state over $400,000 for their work on redistricting on behalf of the GOP.
Republican Legislators Sign Secrecy Pledge
A staff member from Majority Leader Senator Scott Fitzgerald's office and another from Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald's office worked for months from the offices of the law firm on computers supplied by the firm to coordinate the maps and the secret meetings.
According to information released in response to the lawsuit, McLeod instructed the Fitzgerald brothers' staffers, Adam Foltz and Tad Ottman, to coordinate an effort to have the 17 Republican Senators and 58 Republican Assembly-people sign a "Confidentiality and Nondisclosure Related to Reapportionment" statement after discussing the redistricting maps. The hoped that by having the meetings at a law firm they could claim attorney-client privilege, but Peter Earle, the lawyer representing Voces, criticized this as a "bogus cloak of attorney-client privilege." Apparently, the court agreed since the documents were made public.
The secrecy statements and the overall attempts to hide the process by which the maps were planned, drafted, and negotiated show an attempt by the Republican leadership to keep the legislative process behind closed doors. According to the complaint, this lack of transparency is in violation of Wisconsin's open meetings law, which requires legislative meetings to take place in public forums after notice is given.
Republican Senate President Mike Ellis said he had never before been asked to sign such an agreement during his 40 years in office.
"Ignore Public Comments"
Lawyers representing Voces have uncovered further documents, including a memo titled "Talking Points for Robin." Rep. Robin Vos, chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee has admitted that the memo was created for him to use in meetings with other Republican legislators when discussing the maps.
He has downplayed the importance of the section that has garnered the most attention "Public comments on this map may be different from what you hear in this room. Ignore the public comments."
The general interpretation is that Robin Vos wanted his colleagues to understand that what would be said in private might conflict with public statements. Critics point to this as evidence that Republican leaders were knowingly misleading the public.
Redistricting: High Priority for Republicans from Day One
Redistricting was a high priority for the incoming Republican majority in the legislature. Republican control of the Assembly, the Senate, and the governor's office helped them to quickly accomplish this goal.
On January 4, 2011, the day after new legislators were inaugurated, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald made a motion to "authorize the Speaker of the Assembly, Jeff Fitzgerald, to retain legal counsel for the purpose of apportioning and redistricting the Legislative and Congressional Districts." The motion passed and the law firm Michael, Best and Friedrich, LLC was hired to represent both Republicans and Democrats in the process.
But the high-priced lawyers have not fared well in federal court where a panel of judges has repeatedly expressed frustration with the firm. They fined the firm $17,500 for filing frivolous motions and chastised it for its absurd arguments. For instance, in a deposition in December, Fitzgerald-staffer Foltz testified under oath that the new maps were not meant to increase the GOP majority in the legislature.
Democrats Ask to Speak to Their Lawyers
After Voces released the documents, at least one Democrat has contacted "his" law firm requesting information regarding redistricting. Senator Jon Erpenbach wrote to Eric McLeod: "Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has insisted from the start of the redistricting process that the process has not been political in nature. He even went so far as to deny Senate Democrats legal representation in this process, saying that the Senate already had a law firm: yours...Therefore, it is my understanding, as the elected State Senator of the 27th Senate District, I am your client. As your client I would like to review the file regarding your firm's work on redistricting."
He is still awaiting an answer.