Conservative Justice Pat Roggensack questioned whether Black candidates in Wisconsin truly face barriers to getting support from white voters as the state Supreme Court heard six hours of oral arguments over future legislative and congressional boundaries.

One of the issues at the heart of Wednesday’s arguments is the appropriate number of majority Black districts in the state Assembly.

Under current lines, there are six. The map GOP lawmakers proposed include five with one seat with a Black voting age population of 48.5 percent. Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers and a group of plaintiffs sought to create seven seats, though the guv’s proposal uses a more expansive definition of who qualifies as a Black voter to reach percentages that range from 50.1 percent Black to 51.4 percent.

For all of the maps, those districts are all in the Milwaukee area.

A key issue in the case is the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires districts to be drawn in some instances where minority voters have the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice if whites vote as a bloc.

During oral arguments, Roggensack raised the success of Black candidates in various races.

For example, she noted Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes was elected to his old Assembly seat in 2014 with more than 98 percent of the vote and pointed out the district is not more than 98 percent Black.

She also said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, has had overwhelming success in her reelection bids to suggest both candidates were able to draw significant white support.

Barnes, though, was unopposed in the 2014 primary and general elections, when he eclipsed the 98 percent mark.

Since the current lines were put in place in 2011, Taylor has only been opposed in the general election once. In 2012, she defeated Republican David King, who’s also Black, with 86.62 percent of the vote.

Roggensack also brought up Rep. LaKeshia Myers beating fellow Milwaukee Dem Fred Kessler, who’s white, in the 2018 primary.

But attorney Doug Poland, who represents a group of parties including Black Leaders Organizing Communities, countered the example wasn’t valid because the 12th Assembly District is a majority Black seat. He argued there wasn’t a white bloc of voters large enough in the seat that year to prevent Myers from winning through racially polarized voting.

Roggensack also brought up Barnes’ win in the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor as he won 67.9 percent of the vote against Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober, who is white.

“I think clearly he’s had a lot of white support in his campaigns. He’s a very talented person, as he should,” Roggensack said.

Roggensack also several times mistakenly said there were six Black members of the Assembly, five from Milwaukee and one from Madison. There are seven Black members with two from Madison, Reps. Shelia Stubbs and Samba Baldeh, who was elected in 2020.

Poland pointed out to Roggensack that Milwaukee has never elected a Black mayor, the first Black Milwaukee County exec didn’t win office until 2020 and only one Black candidate has been elected mayor in any Wisconsin community. That was Frances Huntley-Cooper in 1991.

“There has been a lack of success overall of Black candidates in the state of Wisconsin,” he said.

As Roggensack raised the other races, Justice Rebecca Dallet interrupted, asking if the court could stick to the record before it rather than discussing races that hadn’t been raised in the briefs.

That drew a rebuke from Roggensack. The justice said she wanted to know why some of the parties hadn’t addressed those races.

“No, I’m going to ask my question,” Roggensack said. “He didn’t consider it, and my question is why not?”

Fellow conservatives Rebecca Bradley and Annette Ziegler also raised questions about maps that sought to draw seven Black districts.

The current six Black Assembly districts range from a Black voting age population of more than 55 percent to more than 68 percent.

Bradley suggested past federal court precedent requires majority minority districts to be in the 60 percent to 65 percent range for the voting age population.

Ziegler questioned if Evers’ map and the one from the BLOC plaintiffs diluted the power of Black voters by reducing their numbers.

“Is it normal to reduce the number of Black voters in districts?” she asked.

John Devaney, representing a group of Dem voters, told the justices it was appropriate to lower the concentration of Black voters in those Milwaukee-area districts because Republicans are trying to pack them into seats. He said that violates the Voting Rights Act.

The justices also peppered parties with questions about their approach to the court’s instruction that they take a “least-change” approach to the current lines.

That includes how that directive impacts the requirement that districts be uniform in population within certain parameters.

Ziegler also raised concerns about the number of municipalities that were split under Evers’ legislative maps compared to the proposals from the Legislature.

Under the current map, there are 125 municipality splits in the Assembly seats and 84 in the Senate.

The guv’s proposed map has 115 in the Assembly and 76 in the Senate. The Legislature’s proposal is 28 in the Senate and 48 in the Assembly.

Evers attorney Anthony Russomanno argued that was a function of following the least-change approach the court ordered. Because the current map splits so many municipalities, it required someone following that approach to do the same.

But Ziegler still expressed concerns.

“It’s important to those local communities to not be split up and divided in all the ways that affect their daily life,” Ziegler said.

Meanwhile, Taylor Meehan, an attorney for GOP lawmakers, urged the justices to reject the maps from the guv and the BLOC plaintiffs, arguing they had too large of a population deviation among districts.

The attorneys for Evers and the BLOC plaintiffs argued those deviations are within allowable limits.

Justice Brian Hagedorn, who has been the swing vote in key cases, said having smaller population deviations among districts is a commendable choice, but not a constitutional prerequisite. He argued when the court set the parameters for the maps it wanted parties to submit with a focus on a least-change approach, it didn’t place an emphasis on having precisely equal populations in each district.

“I don’t want to be a Charlie Brown and Lucy here,” he said, referring to the long-running gag in the cartoon series of Lucy asking her friend to kick a football before pulling it away at the last second.

Later, Rebecca Bradley argued minimizing population deviations was required under state and federal law.

“To suggest this is somehow pulling the football from Charlie Brown, I don’t understand that,” she said.

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