Shift in majority leads to bitter fighting on Wisconsin Supreme Court
Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
In the first week of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s new liberal majority, the body erupted into public fighting over policy changes and accusations of partisanship after the four liberal members voted to weaken the power of conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler.
The court’s four liberals voted Friday to put some of the chief justice’s powers under the control of a three-member administrative committee and make a series of changes to the court’s internal operating procedures. They also voted to create a committee aimed at studying policies for when justices should recuse themselves from cases.
In response, Ziegler said the decision was an overreach by “rogue justices.”
Conservatives held a majority on the court for the last 15 years. During that time, a conservative justice was accused of trying to choke a liberal member, the court’s administrative meetings were closed to the public and the body regularly sided with Republicans on major cases deciding the state’s political maps, the power of the state’s elected executive officeholders and three conservatives voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The first week of liberal control of the court came with Ziegler twice issuing public statements about the policy changes while another conservative, Justice Rebecca Bradley, took to tweeting about the “cabal of leftists” running the court.
“Today, four rogue members of the court met in a secret, unscheduled, illegitimate closed meeting in an attempt to gut the Chief Justice’s constitutional authority as administrator of the court,” Ziegler said in a statement Friday. “Court business concerning Internal Operating Procedures and Supreme Court Rules is conducted when seven members of the court convene with an agenda prepared by the Chief Justice and at a time set by the Chief Justice during the court’s business year, which is September-June. The rogue justices’ attempt to go outside of this recognized procedure is an imposition of will and a raw exercise of overreaching power. Any such attempted action is illegitimate and unenforceable.”
Liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet said in a statement that the policy changes were aimed at increasing transparency and accountability.
“The majority of justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted today to advance a number of transparency and accountability measures,” she said in a statement on the same policy changes, issued shorty after Ziegler’s. “First, we have made a series of rules and operating procedures changes to make Court decision-making more inclusive, timely, and responsive.”
While two of the conservative justices complained that the policy changes were made in secret, Dallet said in a statement that the liberals had been trying since May to have Ziegler schedule an August meeting to discuss and vote on the planned policy changes but that she “flatly refused” to schedule anything.
The week of public fighting between the court’s two sides is a marked escalation of tensions on a body in which decisions are typically made behind closed doors and arguments are aired in the justices’ published decisions.
On Twitter, Bradley wrote that the actions of the first week amounted to a power grab.
“Nothing will stand in the way of their blatant power grab designed to advance their political agenda,” she wrote. “They sully the institution of the judiciary.”
The fight over the policy changes came just days after the liberals voted to fire the state courts director, Randy Koschnick, and replace him with Milwaukee County Judge Audrey Skwierawski. That decision also erupted into a public battle, with Ziegler issuing statements defending Koschnick, who was responsible for providing technical assistance to courts around the state, developing the court system’s budget, organizing judicial education courses and hiring court personnel.
After Koschnick’s firing on Wednesday, Ziegler, a conservative, wrote a letter in which she stated the decision to fire Koschnick, a former Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, was made “without regard for the Constitution, case law or Supreme Court rules which address who can fill such a position of public trust.”
Koschnick, Ziegler and conservative media outlets have speculated that the firing occurred because of Koschnick’s politics. In 2009, he ran as a conservative against then-Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal, and has previously made donations to Republican candidates for office.
Skwierawski, whom the liberal justices chose to replace Koschnick, was appointed to the Milwaukee County bench by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and had worked in the state Department of Justice under two Republican attorneys general.
The disagreement over Koschnick’s firing grew on Friday when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) wrote in a letter that the appointment of Skwierawski was unconstitutional.
The Republican leaders said that Skwierawsk can’t hold a position of “public trust” besides judge until the expiration of her term in 2025.
“Her appointment, effective August 3, 2023, was unlawful and should be rescinded,” Vos and LeMahieu wrote. “The constitution demands no less.”
In their letter, LeMahieu and Vos point to a section of the state Constitution that states “no … judge of any court of record shall hold any other office of public trust, except a judicial office, during the term for which elected.”
They argue the director of state courts is an office of public trust because “it is an office created by legislative act and is delegated authority that is exercised independently for public benefit.”
If the leaders were to file a lawsuit over the appointment, it would ultimately be decided by the same majority that appointed Skwierawski in the first place.
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