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Wisconsin Republicans threaten to impeach liberal justice over redistricting comments

Republicans claim state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz’s previous criticism of the state’s legislative maps should disqualify her from hearing the case.

By Matt Cohen - August 17, 2023
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Janet Protasiewicz is sworn as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, in Madison, Wis. At right is Protasiewicz' husband Greg Sell.
Janet Protasiewicz is sworn as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, in Madison, Wis. At right is Protasiewicz' husband Greg Sell. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz is barely two weeks into her new job sitting on the bench of the state’s highest court, and she’s already facing threats of impeachment.

Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, on Aug. 11 called on Protasiewicz to recuse herself from redistricting cases. In an interview with local conservative radio host Meg Ellefson, Vos said:

“The idea that we’re going to immediately start an impeachment process is probably too radical. I want to look and see, does she recuse herself on cases where she has prejudged? That to me is something that is at the oath of office and what she said she was going to do to uphold the Constitution. That, to me, is a serious offense.”

Protasiewicz called the state’s current election maps “rigged” at a candidate forum in January and said that “they do not reflect people in this state.” 

Wisconsin’s current election maps, which were drawn by Republicans in the State Assembly, were approved by the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court in April 2022. The maps received an “F” grade from Princeton University’s nonpartisan Gerrymandering Project, which determined that they give Republicans in Wisconsin a “significant advantage” in elections. A similar analysis from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel determined that the legislative maps tilt heavily in the GOP’s favor, with 63 of 99 Assembly seats and 23 of 33 state Senate seats leaning significantly in favor of Republicans.

Protasiewicz, who ran as a liberal candidate, defeated conservative candidate and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly by 11 percentage points in April. She was sworn in on Aug. 1, ushering in the first liberal majority on the court in 15 years. A day after Protasiewicz’s swearing-in, a coalition of liberal organizations led by the progressive Madison-based law firm Law Forward filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s maps.

Given Protasiewicz’s previous comment on the state’s legislative maps, Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers say that she can’t judge the case fairly or ethically. “If there’s any semblance of honor on the state Supreme Court left, you cannot have a person who runs for the court prejudging a case and being open about it, and then acting on the case as if you’re an impartial observer,” Vos told Ellefson.

Protasiewicz received backlash from critics — including the Republican Party of Wisconsin — who claimed that she violated the state’s judicial code of conduct when she made the comments about the state’s maps.

But it’s not clear that she did violate ethics rules. The Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct says that judicial candidates are prohibited “from making statements that commit the candidate regarding cases, controversies or issues likely to come before the court.” 

Robert Yablon, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told the Wisconsin State Journal that Protasiewicz did not violate the code of conduct because she didn’t promise which way she’d rule on a specific issue. “This rule prohibits judicial candidates from promising to rule in particular ways on particular legal questions, but it does not bar them from sharing their values and opinions,” he said.

Protasiewicz explicitly declined to say how she would vote on a potential legal challenge. “I can’t tell you what I would do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values, and the maps are wrong,” she said.

But the state’s Republican leadership turned a blind eye to Wisconsin Supreme Court ethics scandals when it had a conservative majority, most notably in 2020, when conservative justice Rebecca Bradley refused to recuse herself in a case brought about by a major donor to her 2016 campaign. Jere Fabick, the owner of construction equipment manufacturer FABCO Equipment, filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers challenging his public health orders to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Fabick contributed $20,000 to Bradley’s campaign.

Protasiewicz hasn’t responded to Vos, but Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Melissa Agard told Wisconsin Public Radio that his comments “are threats to the will of the people and to democracy in Wisconsin.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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