A federal court ruled Tuesday that Republican lawmakers and a law firm they hired would not have to pay for an investigation on allegedly deleted redistricting documents, though the ruling is subject to change if the court eventually finds them at fault. 

Every 10 years, the Legislature redraws voting maps after a federal census, although that process in 2011 led to some Democrats and an immigrant rights group suing the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

The federal court agreed with Democrats and Voces de la Frontera that two state Assembly districts in Milwaukee had to be redrawn. It is now considering a lawsuit that alleges Republican lawmakers and Michael Best and Friderich, the law firm they hired to draw the maps, withheld files and deleted files about redistricting “in bad faith.”

Those groups had asked the defendants to pay for the investigation into the computers that would have held those files, a request the federal panel of three judges rejected Tuesday.

“While the court is fully aware of and concerned with the seemingly vast amount of file deletions that the plaintiffs’ investigation has uncovered, there has not yet been any showing that the files were either deleted in bad faith or would otherwise have been pertinent to the fact finding process in the underlying action,” the three-judge panel said in their decision. “Thus, the court is wary of requiring any other party to foot the plaintiffs’ bill.”

Republicans and the law firm could still pay for the costs of the investigation later, when the investigation is over, the judges said.

A final report from all parties in the case will come May 10, at which point the court will then have to make final decisions.

“At the same time, it should be noted that the court is not foreclosing any future monetary award to the plaintiffs,” the judges said. “Rather, at this juncture, the court is simply denying the plaintiffs’ motion to be granted interim costs.”

The defendants had told the court they should not have to pay for the costs of the investigation in briefs they filed Thursday. 

The law firm said in its brief said it does not believe the firm should be accountable for the documents because they only provided the computers for others to use, and they had no control over whether documents may have been deleted from them.

The Senate, Assembly and the state’s Legislative Technology Services Bureau said federal court rules forbid them from paying for an investigation that has yet to conclude. They had also said a recent court declaration from someone who looked into the computers had shown the plaintiffs “grossly exaggerated their claims.”

Democrats have claimed the timing of the deletions was suspicious, as that came shortly after Republicans lost their majority in the Senate following the 2012 recall elections.

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said because it appears the law firm was involved in destroying or not presenting documents that were court ordered, the court should have required it pay for the investigation.

Mike Browne, spokesperson for One Wisconsin Now, criticized the “shady” redistricting process.

“The whole process has been an anti-democratic disaster from the beginning,” Browne said.

The lawyers could not be reached for comment.