Commentary

Lawless MAGA Republicans are trying to overthrow democracy

August 30, 2023 5:15 am
Protester in a MAGA cheesehead at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

Protester at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

These are not normal times. Still, as Will Bunch observed in a powerful column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, out of force of habit, laziness or just plain denial, a lot of journalists continue to treat the Republican presidential contest as if it were a regular political event instead of the lawless authoritarian movement it really is.

The Republican party has been hijacked by Donald Trump. His enablers here in Wisconsin are part of a destructive cabal that is undermining democratic institutions and the rule of law.

That’s the context around Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler’s denunciation of the “rogue lawlessness” of the new liberal court majority for daring to set procedural rules. 

Ziegler’s claim that the court’s 4-3 liberal majority has staged a “coup” and conducted an “illegal experiment” by choosing a new administrator of state courts and changing some procedural rules is demonstrably false. In a calm, clear email response grounded in reality and the Wisconsin Constitution, Justice Rebecca Dallet explains why Ziegler is wrong.

The Wisconsin Constitution clearly states that a four-person quorum of justices constitutes a majority for the conduct of the court’s business, including setting internal operating procedures. The chief justice exercises “administrative authority pursuant to procedures adopted by the supreme court.” 

Ziegler doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

From one angle, this looks like a tempest in a teapot. Dueling late-August memos about internal court procedures don’t generally rise to the level of headline news.

But the battle for control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a right-wing minority that lost its power in the recent spring election is part of a bigger plot by MAGA Republicans to flout the will of the voters and entrench minority rule

Take this week’s seemingly unrelated AP story about the right-wing groups preparing to gut the federal government if they succeed in getting Trump reelected. Project 25, funded by the Heritage Foundation and fueled by former Trump administration officials, “is essentially a government-in-waiting for the former president’s second term,” AP reports. The idea is to “gut the ‘administrative state’ from within, by ousting federal employees they believe are standing in the way of the president’s agenda and replacing them with like-minded officials more eager to fulfill a new executive’s approach to governing.”

The Project 25 handbook includes a suggested purge of tens of thousands of federal employees, replacing civil service jobs with patronage positions, stopping the FBI from working to curb the spread of misinformation and stepped-up prosecution of anyone who helps provide abortion pills by mail. It’s scary stuff. 

Anti-government rhetoric has been a Republican staple for decades. But the willingness to spread lies, destroy democratic institutions and subvert elections to hold onto power is something new.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against Justice Janet Protasieiwicz unless she recuses herself from a challenge to the Republicans’ gerrymandered voting maps. By stating the truth during her campaign that the current maps are “rigged” to give Republicans a disproportionate legislative majority — an observable fact with which a federal court, a majority of Wisconsin voters and even Vos himself have agreed — Protasiewicz opens herself up to “corruption” charges if she doesn’t disqualify herself, Vos says. 

The impeachment threat, like the caterwauling by the Chief Justice, is absurd. The judicial branch, as a coequal branch of government, has its own recusal rules. Those rules do not require justices to recuse themselves from cases because of remarks they made during a campaign. If the Legislature intervenes and impeaches a justice who follows the rules, it violates the separation of powers among the branches of government. But the emboldened right-wing majority in the Assembly might give it a try anyway, as The Washington Post reports, in order to set up a process by which the Republicans can block a gerrymandering lawsuit that could diminish their power. The point would not be to convict Protasiewicz of anything, just to gum up the workings of the Court long enough to slow down a challenge to the gerrymandered map.

A successful impeachment vote in the Assembly would force a justice to stop hearing or weighing in on cases until the Senate holds a vote on removal from office. Given the Senate’s track record of delaying confirmation hearings for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ nominees, it’s easy to foresee the foot-dragging that would ensue, at least until the 2024 election is over.

Stop calling them ‘conservatives’

On the same day the dueling memos between the new Wisconsin Supreme Court majority and the power-grabbing right-wing minority came out, the Senate held a public hearing on whether or not Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe should be allowed to continue in her job. The hearing went forward against the advice of legislative attorneys and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who have held that the Senate does not have the power to remove Wolfe. It featured MAGA cult members Michael Gableman, who was fired as head of the Legislature’s bumbling “investigation” of the 2020 election, and Racine County election conspiracy theorist Harry Wait, who is facing criminal charges for making fraudulent absentee ballot requests. 

One thing Gableman, Wait and Chief Justice Ziegler all have in common is that they supported Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election results in Wisconsin. Had a lone conservative on the court, Brian Hagedorn, not voted with the liberal minority, Trump’s challenge would have been upheld.

Ziegler joined team MAGA — and very nearly made the Wisconsin Supreme Court the only forum in the nation to allow Trump’s spurious challenge to the election results to move forward.

Let’s stop calling these people “conservatives.” The Republican Party has devolved into a cult of personality, working to install a strongman in the White House who has been charged with 91 felonies and who could easily be convicted and sentenced before the 2024 Republican convention in Milwaukee. It’s a real possibility that Trump could deliver his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination from prison. 

Wisconsin is going to play a key role in the next election, and defending democracy and justice in this state is going to be critical to preventing our country’s slide authoritarianism. 

To protect the elected majority on the state’s highest court, theoretically, Protasiewicz could seek an injunction against the Legislature and prevent them from impeaching her in violation of her free speech rights. 

In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White that the First Amendment protects the rights of candidates for judicial election to announce their views on disputed legal and political issues. The opinion written by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia,

Time is of the essence, though. That lawsuit would have to be filed promptly to head off the Legislature’s impeachment delaying tactic.

Another possibility is that Protasiewicz, if impeached by the Assembly, could resign. Then Democratic Gov. Evers could appoint another justice to take her place. Evers could choose someone like former Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor or progressive Judge Everett Mitchell. Protasiewicz could then run against MAGA Justice Rebecca Bradely in 2026. Given the outcome of recent Wisconsin Supreme Court races, it seems likely she’s win again.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Justice should file charges against Wisconsin’s fake electors – one of whom, Robert Spindell, is still serving on the state elections commission.

The only way to defeat the sheer chutzpah of the right-wing attack on democracy is by fighting back just as aggressively. Our future depends on it. 

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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.

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