A leading conservative attorney said Tuesday that he has never heard anyone in the Wisconsin Legislature say there were plans to circumvent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers by pushing through redistricting without his approval, even as Republican leaders refused to rule out such an approach.
Meanwhile, Democrats pushed for Republicans who control the Legislature to promise they will not look for ways to redraw political maps in 2021 outside of passing a bill that would require Evers' signature.
The current tumult revolves around the possibility that the Legislature could pass a joint resolution to enact new political boundary lines following the 2020 census. Such a move would not require action by Evers, who is likely to veto any Republican-drawn map.
The Legislature last redrew maps in 2011, the year Republicans took control of both the Senate and Assembly. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was in his first year in office, signed the bills into law.
Democrats have advocated for years for the Legislature to give the job of redistricting to a nonpartisan panel, a move Republicans have rejected. Assuming Republicans retain majority control of the Legislature following the 2020 election, they will be in place to draw the maps again in 2021. But Evers supports nonpartisan redistricting and has threatened to veto maps that favor Republicans.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that passing a joint resolution rather than a bill signed by the governor to put in place redistricted maps is unconstitutional. But the idea is being discussed again, with conservatives having a majority of seats on the Supreme Court.
The theory is that Republicans would draw new maps, approve them with a joint resolution that bypasses Evers, and then count on a favorable ruling from the state Supreme Court.
The Wisconsin Examiner, a liberal online publication, reported Monday that Rick Esenberg, the president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, was aware of Republican plans to pursue the joint resolution approach.
Esenberg said Tuesday that is not true.
"We have heard of the legal idea that the Legislature could move forward on redistricting by joint resolution, but have never heard anyone in the Legislature say there were plans to do so," he said in a statement. "Reports suggesting otherwise are incorrect."
In a message posted on Twitter later Tuesday, Esenberg said he had no idea what Republican legislative leaders would think of the joint resolution approach.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos both denied that they were discussing the idea. But neither responded to follow-up emails asking whether Republicans would rule out the idea or were committed to passing a bill to enact redistricting, as is the standard practice.
Their silence on that question raised alarms with liberals, who have been advocating for Wisconsin to create a nonpartisan redistricting process.
"The double-talk used by the Speaker and Majority Leader is neither an effective denial nor a promise the people of Wisconsin can count on," said a statement from the Fair Elections Project, a group that supports nonpartisan redistricting in Wisconsin and organized an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the current maps. "They can put this issue to rest by answering a simple question — will they, under any circumstance, try to pass a legislative district map without the Governor's signature?"
If Evers vetoes Republican-drawn maps, the fight would head to the courts, which drew the electoral maps for decades prior to 2011.