Wisconsin’s Trump enablers are still undermining democracy

August 22, 2023 5:15 am
Speaker Robin Vos flies with former President Donald Trump to talk election audit on 8/21/21 | Vos official Facebook

Speaker Robin Vos flies with former President Donald Trump on Aug. 21, 2021. The two discussed Wisconsin’s election review that Vos commissioned. (Vos official Facebook page)

Even as Trump snubs the Republican Party by refusing to attend the debate in Milwaukee this week, his corrosive influence continues to permeate Wisconsin.

The list of Wisconsinites named in Trump indictments keeps growing. It now includes the current chair of state Republican Party, Brian Schimming, who was involved in the fake electors scheme and still defends it. Schimming worked with Wisconsin lawyer Jim Troupis to organize a group of MAGA Republicans to cast fraudulent Electoral College ballots for Trump after Biden won Wisconsin. Then Republican Sen. Ron Johnson tried to hand off those fake ballots to Vice President Mike Pence during the electoral count. Johnson has defended himself by saying he didn’t spend that much time on the effort, taking the novel position that, as John Nichols describes it, there’s a “five-second rule” for sedition.

As the charges mount against Trump and the people who tried to help him steal the 2020 presidential election, MAGA contempt for the truth and the rule of law is continuing to undermine our democratic institutions right here in Wisconsin.

Not only were we among the handful of states where Trump enablers participated in the fake electors scheme, Trump-friendly justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court very nearly decided in favor of his attempt to have 221,000 ballots thrown out in the state’s two most Democratic counties. A single principled vote by conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn blocked Trump’s ham-handed effort to overturn the election results just an hour before the Electoral College cast Wisconsin’s 10 votes for President Joe Biden.

That’s the backdrop to current efforts to prevent the new, liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from taking control.

The definitive win by liberal-leading Justice Janet Protasiewicz last April was a national news story because it was seen as a bellwether for the 2024 election. The rebuke of right-wing candidate Daniel Kelly by a hefty margin in the statewide race was interpreted as voters’ rejection of our draconian 1849 abortion ban as well as a threat to Republicans’ grip on the state and, by extension, national politics.

So, following the lead of the biggest sore loser in American history, state Republicans have been throwing a hissy fit. It started with Kelly’s absurdly ungracious non-concession speech on Election Night. Then came Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ threat to impeach Protasiewicz if she dares to weigh in on the gerrymandered map that gives Vos and his party disproportionate power. Conservatives on the court who have become the minority, meanwhile, have been burning up the rightwing talk radio airwaves fulminating about how unfair it is that they are no longer in charge of court procedures.

So accustomed are right-wingers in this state to minority rule that they are absolutely outraged by the consequences of losing a democratic election. Like Trump, they have contempt for the will of the majority of voters and are doing their best to hang on to power by brute force.

In a podcast interview with the right-wing MacIver Institute, Justice Rebecca Bradley said of the liberal court majority’s moves to take control of the court calendar and appoint committees to review other procedural matters, “I am not going to follow these proposed rules because they were adopted in violation of our rules and procedures. And I cannot follow them because I would be violating the constitution if I legitimized them by following them.”

That’s patently false. As I’ve already written, Right-wingers’ claims that a “rogue majority” is violating the constitution by making new rules doesn’t stand up to a simple reading of the clause they cite, Article VII Section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution: “The chief justice of the supreme court shall be the administrative head of the judicial system and shall exercise this administrative authority pursuant to procedures adopted by the supreme court.” (Emphasis added) The same section clarifies that “any 4 justices shall constitute a quorum for the conduct of the court’s business.”

Bradley says she will only follow administrative decisions made by the chief justice, not those of the majority. That’s a clear violation of the constitutional clause cited above.

The conservatives’ temper tantrum isn’t just unseemly. Given revelations about the coordinated effort in the states to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, it’s downright ominous. As Trump attorney Kenneth Chesebro explained in his memo to Troupis on the fake electors, having lawsuits that called into question election results was a critical piece of the Jan. 6 criminal conspiracy to reverse Trump’s 2020 loss.

Bradley’s refusal to go along rules set by the majority on the court is another effort to sabotage the smooth functioning of democratic institutions and cast doubt on a process society depends on.

“Her rhetoric is just plain reckless, her threats and courting of the right-wing media are blatantly partisan, and it looks like she’s working with Robin Vos and the Republican Legislature to do everything they can to undermine the will of the voters and keep their hold on power (that they lost because voters decided),” says Mike Browne, deputy director of the progressive research and communication group A Better Wisconsin Together, which spent a lot of money supporting Protasiewicz. Bradley and Ziegler appear to be laying the groundwork to fight, undermine, delay and litigate anything the majority does, Browne adds.

But they still don’t have the majority on the court. At the end of the day, the majority has the power, under the Wisconsin Constitution, to make decisions without them. As the new majority prepares to take up a gerrymandering case that could give Wisconsinites fair maps, Vos is insisting that Protasiewicz’s use of the word “rigged” to describe maps during her campaign means she must recuse herself.

That’s another deliberate misreading of the court’s rules. Judges don’t have to recuse themselves from cases because they’ve expressed an opinion. They should recuse themselves from cases involving their campaign donors, to avoid the appearance that they’ve been bought. But in 2017 the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority — including Justices Ziegler and Bradley — rejected a recusal rule supported by the court’s liberal justices that would have taken judges off cases involving their donors. Since then, the conservatives have regularly ruled in favor of the same business interests that helped get them elected.

To complain now that it is somehow compromising that Protasiewicz dared to openly talk about her views on gerrymandering — views that are shared by a majority of Wisconsin voters, is ridiculous.

So is the shrieking from Bradley about the sanctity of court rules. Back in 2017, I watched the last open meeting held by the Supreme Court on its rules and procedures, in which the odious then-Justice Michael Gableman, supported by Bradley, closed court proceedings to public scrutiny. Bradley and Gableman maneuvered the rule change past the liberal minority, after keeping them in the dark about the whole plan.

Do not for a minute believe these people when they tell you they are the guardians of constitutional government or the rule of law. They are part of a lawless cabal that will stop at nothing to hold onto power — will of the majority be damned.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.