The U.S. Constitution holds that a judge “must recuse if they have a financial interest in the case, or if there is a strong possibility of bias.”
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz’s senior campaign strategist helped found and co-chaired a prominent “fair maps” coalition with ties to petitioners and a law firm representing petitioners in the pending redistricting case before the court, spurring new bias concerns as Republicans call for her recusal.
Through the coalition and a second group, Sachin Chheda has been extensively involved for years in leading the efforts in Wisconsin to get the courts to undo the Republican legislative maps that are the very issue now before the court. He was chairman and co-founder of the Fair Maps Coalition and Fair Elections Project, both devoted to that effort.
In addition, Protasiewicz prejudged the cases in comments on the campaign trail, calling the maps “rigged” and “unfair” in favor of Republicans in language that closely mirrors the verbiage of Chheda and his groups, who have railed about the Republican maps. Republicans have filed a motion to force her recusal, arguing that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin contributed nearly $10 million to her campaign. “She invited a legal challenge to replace them,” the Republican brief says, adding that she “revealed how she would
decide it,” saying: “If you look at the dissent in that maps case, that dissent is what I
will tell you I agree with.”
Just hours after Justice Protasiewicz was inaugurated, left-leaning groups filed an original action petition asking the Supreme Court to throw out the current legislative maps and redraw the lines based on provisions in state law.
This has long been Chheda’s goal.
“Sachin Chheda, a Democratic political strategist and adviser to Protasiewicz’s campaign, acknowledged that a Protasiewicz win could lead to the court tossing out the 1849 abortion ban and the current legislative maps,” the liberal outlet, Wisconsin Watch, wrote in March.
On March 1, 2023, Protasiewicz’s campaign paid Nation Consulting, where Chheda worked, $35,000. On Feb. 4, 2023, the campaign paid Nation Consulting $20,000.
Although he presents that he’s after non-partisan maps even while railing against the Republican maps, Chheda is a relentless anti-Republican partisan on social media. “What a douchebag liar,” he posted on X recently of a respected conservative lawyer. “Watch my testimony from the farcical hearing on the maps last year, yes the GOP has a small geographic advantage, but not a freakin’ supermajority when the vote is close to 50/50.”
The U.S. Constitution holds that a judge “must recuse if they have a financial interest in the case, or if there is a strong possibility of bias.” State judicial conduct codes hold that a judge must recuse when “the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party’s lawyer or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding.”
The code also says a judge should recuse if they “made a public statement that commits, or appears to commit, the judge with respect to “an issue in the proceeding” or “the controversy in the proceeding.”
- Pending case petitioner Jerry Iverson “was a member of the Fair Maps Coalition and is currently active in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin,” according to a legal brief filed by the petitioners.
- Petitioner Ruben Anthony was a speaker at a rally sponsored by the Fair Maps Coalition against the legislative maps. He spoke at a podium bearing a Fair Maps Coalition sign that read, “end gerrymandering.”
- Petitioner Tia Johnson was identified as a team member on a Fair Maps Coalition effort to redraw maps in Beloit.
- The League of Women Voters, a Fair Maps Coalition member, wrote on its website that the petitioners’ law firm “Law Forward” is a “lead team member” of Chheda’s organization: “Join Fair Maps Coalition Lead Team members, including Law Forward, Fair Elections Project, League of Women Voters, and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to learn more about what the Supreme Court decision means for democracy in Wisconsin,” it reads.
The state Supreme Court, then conservative-controlled, adopted the Republican maps as part of a mandatory injunction just over a year ago, adopting a “least change approach.”
This came after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers created a People’s Maps Commission that still gave Republicans a 55-44 advantage in the Assembly. Initially, the Wisconsin Supreme Court selected Evers’ maps, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that selection and the Wisconsin Supreme Court then selected the GOP legislative maps. [Read a primer on the redistricting maps here.]
Alongside screenshots of Chheda testifying, the Fair Maps Coalition’s website reads, “April 4, 2023, a pro-democracy Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice was elected raising hopes that the current rigged voting district maps will be thrown out and new, fairer maps will be implemented,” referring to Protasiewicz.
Chheda, whose profile picture on X was a picture of himself with Protasiewicz until a few days ago, isn’t just a small player in the Democratic effort to get the court to overturn the legislative maps; he is arguably THE most important player in Wisconsin, bringing together a coalition of organizations to achieve just that. He’s arguably the architect of the efforts to overturn the Republican redistricting maps, and helping run Protasiewicz’s campaign appears to have been one way to achieve his long-standing public goals to do just that.
“For the last decade, they’ve all been relentless in their pursuit of nonpartisan redistricting reform in Wisconsin. Led by the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition (FMC), these folks have done everything legally within their power to bring about a change in the way legislative voting districts are drawn,” Carlene Becher, organizing director with the Fair Maps Coalition, wrote on the blog Recombobulation Area.
However, Chheda is anything but non-partisan. “This is something that’s so hateful towards Wisconsin, must be an idea that was generated by Robin Vos,” he tweeted recently.
Of the maps debate, he wrote, “The fact is, the court will decide if it’s allowable. And whether there’s a limit. Robin don’t like that? Too. Bad.”
Becher’s blog post noted that “back in 2013, a bunch of lawyers and pro-democracy activists met as part of the Fair Elections Project to strategize about how to undo the 2011 gerrymandered maps that were already wreaking havoc on democratic institutions in Wisconsin.”
The blog added: “The Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition was formed to provide advocacy and support for the ongoing litigation.”
Supreme Court Redistricting Lawsuits
In 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering arguments were not a matter for federal court, a Fox6 article described Chheda’s group as having “organized the Wisconsin lawsuit,” and quoted him as saying, “our work continues.” A press release from Chheda in 2016 said his Fair Elections Project “organized and launched the lawsuit” that year seeking to have legislative maps ruled unconstitutional. That lawsuit involved the 2011 redistricting maps, which are cited in the current litigation.
The press release says the plaintiffs were “represented by an all-star team of attorneys,” naming Doug Poland, co-founder of Law Forward. He is one of the attorneys for petitioners in the current redistricting lawsuit before the court.
Law Forward is a non-profit that lists Nicole Safar as its principal officer and assets of more than $3 million, according to Guidestar. Its funders are not clear.
Law Forward’s president was listed as Jeff Mandell, secretary/treasurer was Judy Ziewacz, and directors were Andrew Disch, John Miller, Christine Bremer Muggli, and Safar. Muggli endorsed Protasiewicz, and is a campaign donor to Protasiewicz, Karofsky, and Dallet.
Its 2021 tax form shows its contributions and grants exploded that year from $783,990 to $3,310,684.
When you go on the website of the Fair Maps Coalition a box pops up blaring that Law Forward has filed a redistricting petition before the court.
“On April 18, 2022, the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition hosted a briefing on the new state voting maps and the next steps forward in Wisconsin’s fight for fair election maps,” the website says in a timeline that includes two screenshots of Chheda advocating for new maps.
“On April 4, 2023, a pro-democracy Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice was elected raising hopes that the current rigged voting district maps will be thrown out and new, fairer maps will be implemented,” it says.
More Ties to Sachin Chheda
Multiple petitioners also have ties to Chheda as members or leaders in the Coalition member League of Women Voters. The executive director of the League of Women Voters recently took over leadership of the Fair Maps Coalition from Chheda, who “will continue to direct the Fair Elections Project and serve as a member of the Coalition’s Lead Team.”
The League of Women Voters press release confirms he is co-founder of Fair Maps Coalition and served as its chair/co-chair since 2017.
Chheda is listed as working on Protasiewicz’s campaign by Daily Kos. He said in July that he was “celebrating” her investiture; in June, Chheda told Up North News that litigation would be grounded in the state Constitution, a new angle designed to make federal appeal to SCOTUS more difficult. The Coalition page touted Protasiewicz.
Chheda helped run the campaigns of two other liberal justices as well; he “worked on” the last three liberal justices’ campaigns, according to Up North News, which reported in June that Chheda “worked to support the campaigns for Protasiewicz, Justice Jill Karofsky, and Justice Rebecca Dallet.” Chheda and his former consulting business received thousands of dollars from Karofsky’s campaign.
Far from distancing themselves from him, we’re told the liberal justices considered making Chheda the director of state courts, although they eventually abandoned that idea.
Sachin Chheda “founded the Fair Elections Project, and was a key organizer in launching the Whitford case in which a federal district court ruled Wisconsin’s legislative maps unconstitutional for being a partisan gerrymander, the first such ruling in American history. That case eventually reached the US Supreme Court,” his website bio reads. “Sachin was also a cofounder, and currently serves as chair, of the WI Fair Maps Coalition.”
Chheda has been a registered lobbyist for the project; the state lobbying website describes it as, “fighting for fair redistricting around the country by inspiring and supporting litigation, legislation, and public advocacy to stop partisan gerrymandering. The goal is to end map-rigging, so that instead of politicians choosing their voters, voters can choose their elected officials, and elections will again be meaningful.”
The page continues, “The Fair Elections Project is a member organization of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, whose mission is to advocate for and enact, in law and practice, an independent and nonpartisan redistricting method in Wisconsin.” But Chheda’s own comments make it clear that the effort is targeting the Republican-drawn maps on the state Supreme Court.
According to Ripon Press, “In his testimony to the People’s Maps Commission, Fair Elections Project Director Sachin Chheda said 2011 was the first time the state was truly gerrymandered, meaning boundaries were intentionally manipulated to establish an unfair political advantage for one party.”
“They’re basically willing to spend any amount of taxpayer money to try to rig the maps and retain power for another 10 years,” said Chheda, according to the liberal Wisconsin Examiner, which described Chheda’s group as “a group dedicated to fighting partisan gerrymandering around the country.”
Law Forward has helped author a brief arguing that Protasiewicz should not have to recuse herself from the maps case.
Sachin Chheda’s LinkedIn page says he left Fair Elections Project in August 2023, which is when Protasiewicz was sworn in on the court, flipping the majority toward liberals.
Chheda has used very similar language to Protasiewicz in describing the current legislative maps as “rigged.” He wrote in August that it’s “indisputable” that the maps are “rigged,” and criticized Republican leader Robin Vos’s comments on impeachment.
The Fair Maps Coalition group’s efforts include letters to the editor, testifying at legislative hearings “against the rigged maps” and SB 621, rallies in 17 cities, and much more. Chheda’s Fair Elections Project is a coalition partner, per its website. Sachin Chheda spoke in favor of the People’s Map Commission maps in a press conference.
The petitioners in the Law Forward pending case are: Rebecca Clarke, Ruben Anthony, Terry Dawson, Dana Glasstein, Ann Groves-Lloyd, Carl Hujet, Jerry Iverson, Tia Johnson, Angie Kirst, Selika Lawton, Fabian Maldonado, Annemarie McClellan, James McNett, Brittany Muriello, Ela Joosten (Pari) Schils, Nathaniel Slack, Mary Smith-Johnson, Denise (Dee) Sweet, and Gabrielle Young.
Lawyers in the case work for the Campaign Legal Center of Washington D.C. and Chicago, the Election Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, Law Forward, Stafford Rosenbaum LLP (lawyers Douglas Poland and Jeffrey Mandell), and the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP law firm in Washington D.C.
The Law Forward lawyers are Daniel Lenz, T.R. Edwards, Elizabeth M. Pierson, and Scott B. Thompson.
Also at issue is the massive amount of money that Protasiewicz’s campaign took from the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Many of the petitioners have ties to the party.
Who Are the Petitioners?
Clarke, a Sheboygan County Supervisor, is a failed Democratic state Assembly candidate and a member of the Sheboygan County Democrats who “regularly canvasses for and donates to Democratic candidates.” She pushed a Fair Maps Coalition event on Facebook.
Dr. Ruben Anthony is the president of the Urban League of Greater Madison and was a member of Evers’ People’s Maps Commission. The Fair Maps Coalition announced in a press release that Anthony was a speaker at a “fair maps” rally. The League of Women Voters wrote, “more than 1000 members of the Fair Maps Coalition, including many League members rallied last Friday at 19 locations around the state,” to “end gerrymandering,” naming Anthony as an attendee.
Terry Dawson is a retired public librarian who volunteered for campaigns through the Democratic Party of Outagamie County.
Dana Glasstein is an English as a Second Language instructor from Mequon. She is an active member of the Ozaukee County Democrats and trained canvassers and phone bankers in 2020 and 2022. Dawson has been a recent voting member of League of Women Voters Appleton.
Dr. Ann Groves-Lloyd, the mayor of Lodi, was an administrator at the University of Wisconsin and is a member of the Columbia County Democrats and regularly canvasses for Democrats.
Carl Hujet is a retired custodian and newspaper worker who is described as a “retired union member.” He is on the board of the Brown County Democrats. He’s donated multiple times, albeit in small amounts, to the campaign of sitting Justice Jill Karofsky.
Iverson worked in various sectors and was a “member of the Fair Maps Coalition and is currently active in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.”
Tia Johnson is a rental property owner and former teacher who is a member of the Rock County Democrats. She was on a Fair Maps Coalition team in Beloit.
Angie Kirst is a retired teacher who is active in the Dodge County Democrats. She is a donor to the Dodge County Democratic Party.
Dr. Selika Lawton is a history professor in Eau Claire who canvassed for local Democrats and was president of the local NAACP.
Fabian Maldonado is a political organizer for the Milwaukee teacher’s union and a failed Democratic county board and mayoral candidate.
Annemarie McClellan works in health administration, serves as volunteer co-chair of the League of Women Voters for the Greater Chippewa Valley and served on the People’s Maps Commission. McClellan is also “the co-president of her local League of Women Voters-Greater Chippewa Valley.” She spoke at one of the fair maps rallies.
James McNett is a retired riverboat captain and Democratic Party donor.
Brittany Muriello is a stay at home mother who volunteers for the Waukesha County Democrats.
Ela Joosten (Pari) Schils is a college student who is a Black Lives Matter activist.
Nathaniel Slack is an independent organic farm auditor who is a member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
Mary Smith-Johnson is a retired teacher who is co-chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party.
Denise (Dee) Sweet is a member of the Ojibwe Nation.
Gabrielle Young works at a grocery store.
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