Justice Protasiewicz Investiture – left to right Justice Protasiewicz, Husband Greg Sell, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley | Examiner photo
The Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Legislature could keep the state Supreme Court’s liberals from hearing cases with a simple majority vote in the Assembly, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
Since the Court flipped to a liberal majority earlier this month, Wisconsin Republicans have been complaining about the majority’s use of its newfound power. In their first weeks in the majority, the Court’s four liberals fired a former judge and previous conservative Supreme Court candidate from his position as director of state courts, changed some of the Court’s administrative policies and gave some of the chief justice’s authority to a new three-justice committee. All of those actions led to cries from conservative justices, Republican lawmakers and others that the majority was abusing its newfound power.
In the first weeks of the new majority, two lawsuits were filed challenging the state’s political maps, which heavily favor Republicans. Republicans pounced on newly sworn-in Justice Janet Protasiewicz’s comments on the campaign trail that the maps are “rigged,” claiming the comments, and the donations her campaign had received from the state Democratic party, amounted to a conflict of interest and called on her to recuse herself from the case.
More than a decade earlier, the Court’s conservative majority had changed its recusal rules to state that political donations to a justice don’t necessarily mean the justice must step aside from a case involving a donor.
As conservative justices and Republican lawmakers complained to the state’s right-wing media, calls for the impeachment of Protasiewicz have grown louder. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said the Legislature could impeach Protasiewicz if she doesn’t recuse herself from a redistricting case.
Under Wisconsin law, impeachment requires a simple majority vote in the Assembly with a two-thirds majority required in the Senate to remove an official from office. If a Supreme Court justice were impeached, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would be able to appoint someone else to fill the seat.
On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that a successful Assembly impeachment vote would force a justice to stop hearing or weighing in on any cases while the Senate waits to hold a vote on removal. The Senate could delay taking a vote, effectively sidelining Protasiewicz and suspending the court’s liberal majority indefinitely while preventing Evers from filling an impeached justice’s seat, since that seat wouldn’t technically be vacant.
In recent years, Wisconsin Republicans have regularly moved to strip powers from elected Democrats. Before Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul took office in 2018, Republicans voted to strip them of certain responsibilities. Republicans in the Senate have also gone years without holding confirmation votes on Evers’ appointees to cabinet-level positions and important state boards. In 2019, after taking issue with comments about rural mental health made by Brad Pfaff, the then-secretary designee of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Senate Republicans finally held a confirmation vote for him and fired him from the position.
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) says she thinks the Republicans moving forward with impeachment would blow up politically for them.
“I think politically it would be disastrous for them, that’s because the margin of Justice Janet’s victory was so huge,” she says. “It wasn’t like a fluke. So it would definitely be the most egregious abuse of their power. It would also be totally ineffective because the governor would simply appoint another liberal justice. I understand there are some extremely angry Republicans in the caucus, in the legislative caucuses, who are really hell-bent on destroying everything. Hopefully there are enough Republicans who still see political reality and realize what a terrible idea it would be to go down that path.”
Plus, if Republicans voted to impeach a justice but the Senate tried to delay cases at the Court by not voting on removal, the justice could resign from her seat, opening up a vacancy to which Evers could appoint another liberal.
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