A federal court hearing a challenge to Wisconsin's Republican-led redistricting sharply criticized the expensive, secretive, and "peculiarly furtive process" employed by the GOP in drawing and defending the maps, but announced a close to "this unfortunate chapter in Wisconsin political history."
"We cannot help but conclude that the people of Wisconsin deserve better in the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census," the three-judge panel wrote.
The decision ends a long legal battle over the gerrymandered Republican maps, but leaves unresolved the extent to which records were deleted in defiance of court orders.
"Shameful" Redistricting Resolved, But Questions Remained About Misconduct
The challenge itself was resolved over a year ago, with the court sharply criticizing the GOP's "all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny," but the judges ultimately upholding most of the maps since there are limited grounds for courts to strike-down redistricting. Still, the court sanctioned the GOP's attorneys in February of 2012 and ordered that they pay $17,500 for filing frivolous motions to keep redistricting-related documents secret.
"Quite frankly," the court wrote at the time, "the Legislature and the actions of its counsel give every appearance of flailing wildly in a desperate attempt to hide from both the court and the public the true nature of exactly what transpired in the redistricting process."
But even after ruling on the maps, the judges retained jurisdiction over the case to ascertain just how much had been withheld -- and to determine whether further sanctions were justified.
Court filings from April of 2013 showed that hundreds of thousands of redistricting-related documents had been deleted in defiance of court orders to turn over all documents. On at least two occasions, someone using the login credentials for two staffers to then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Tad Ottman and Adam Foltz, logged-on to GOP computers and deleted files just before the documents would have been turned-over to the other side. Plaintiffs had spent over $100,000 conducting a forensic analysis of the computers and were seeking to have the legislature or its attorneys cover the costs of continuing to recover and reconstruct deleted files.
The court denied the motion, and in May, the parties announced they had reached a settlement. The terms of the deal were not made public. Plaintiffs agreed to withdraw their request for sanctions, and on June 3, the court issued its final ruling.
How Much Was Covered-Up Remains Unresolved
"At the end of the day," the Court wrote in its decision, "the best that can be said for [Republicans] is that, through 'inadvertence or ineptitude, or otherwise,' compliance with Plaintiffs' subpoenas and the Court's orders 'was not complete.'"
The Court indicated it remains suspicious about whether GOP staffers deliberately withheld documents in defiance of court orders -- noting that such a finding was "inconclusive" and "couched in uncertainty" -- but given the settlement agreement, announced that it was time the Court's "role in this litigation should come to an end."
The three judges, two of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, reiterated their concern about "the regrettable contentiousness that often accompanies partisan redistricting," but more specifically in this case, "the additional Wisconsin-specific rancor brought on by the peculiarly furtive process adopted by the majority party this time around."
As of January, Republicans had spent $1.9 million in taxpayer dollars defending the maps; that month, the GOP hired new attorneys, driving the total cost even higher.
The three federal judges left it to the public to get to the bottom of what really happened during redistricting.
"Whether there is another chapter to be written in this story by others who may have an interest in getting to the bottom of this unfortunate chapter in Wisconsin political history remains to be seen. The extent to which historians,the media, professional regulators and disciplinary bodies, or any others may wish to take further action is for them to decide in due course."