Judicial Commission dismisses complaints against Protasiewicz campaign remarks
Justice Protasiewicz Investiture – left to right Justice Protasiewicz, Husband Greg Sell, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley | Examiner photo
A Wisconsin judiciary disciplinary panel has dismissed several complaints lodged against state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz over comments she made during her campaign this spring.
The complaints alleged that her comments calling Wisconsin voting maps “rigged” had violated that state’s judicial code of ethics, the panel’s dismissal is a blow to Republican efforts to impeach her or force her to recuse herself from high-profile challenges to the state’s gerrymandered political maps because of her campaign statements. Still, Republicans continue to threaten to remove her from office.
During the race, Protasiewicz, a former Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, regularly stated that she personally believes in a woman’s right to receive an abortion and that the state’s legislative maps are “rigged.” However, she never specifically stated how she would rule in any potential cases on those issues.
Shortly after she took her seat on the bench at the beginning of August, giving liberals a majority on the court for the first time in more than 15 years, voting rights advocates filed two lawsuits challenging Wiscconsin’s political maps which are recognized by experts as one of the heaviest partisan gerrymanders in the country,.
On Tuesday, Protasiewicz released a letter to the Associated Press announcing that the complaints had been dismissed without action from the state judicial commission. Judicial commission decisions are typically private unless released by one of the parties involved.
The Judicial Commission is a nine-member body made up of two attorneys and two judges appointed by the Supreme Court and five non-lawyer members appointed by the governor to three-year terms. The commission is responsible for investigating judges’ potential violations of the state’s judicial code of conduct.
Protasiewicz also sent the letter to the lawyers in the redistricting cases, asking them to respond by Sept. 18 as to how it affects a request by Republican lawmakers that she recuse herself.
After the lawsuits were filed against the maps, Republicans and conservative justices on the Court have regularly said her comments warrant recusal from the lawsuits and if she does weigh in on the cases, that would be grounds for impeachment.
Conservatives have also complained that because Protasiewicz received $10 million in campaign donations from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, she should recuse herself from the case, arguing that because Democratic lawmakers would benefit from less gerrymandered maps, the donations represent a conflict of interest.
The state Democratic Party isn’t a party in either of the redistricting lawsuits. When conservatives held a majority on the Court, they set the body’s recusal rules which do not require justices to recuse themselves from cases involving their own campaign donors, Protasiewicz said that she would recuse herself from any case in which the Democratic Party were involved, even though the Court’s rules wouldn’t require her to do so.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a statement Tuesday that the dismissal of the complaints “muddies the waters” but that Protasiewicz should still be impeached because of donations she received from the Democratic Party.
“The Judicial Commission’s memo, released today, only muddies the waters,” Vos said. “The Judicial Commission decided Justice Protasiewicz could not be sanctioned for what she said on the campaign trail. The Commission did not address whether she can sit on a case after accepting $10 million in campaign funds from the Democrat Party — the interested party in the redistricting case. Nor did they address whether she may sit on a case having made commitments for how she would rule that are inconsistent with the obligation to be impartial.”
During the campaign, Protasiewicz said her comments on redistricting were only reflective of her personal “values,” and not of how she would rule in a case on whether the maps were unconstitutional.
At a media briefing Tuesday evening, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler said the threats of impeachment amount to a “legislative coup” against Wisconsin’s judicial branch and that if Republicans took the step to impeach Protasiewicz, it would be a political disaster for them.
“What Robin Vos and Wisconsin Republicans are publicly threatening to do is to nullify the votes of more than a million Wisconsinites, opening up a Pandora’s box and shredding our principle of judicial independence and the rule of law,” Wikler said. “The impeachment threat is fundamentally a refusal to accept the results of the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Justice Protasiewicz’s election was overwhelming mere months ago. She has yet to hear a single case on our state’s highest court. Today, the complaints against her were dismissed. For Republicans to fabricate grounds for impeachment of Justice Protasiewicz would be unprecedented and a slap in the face of every Wisconsin voter.”
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