Since she was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this year, tipping the court to the left, liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz has been in the crosshairs of Republicans.
Wisconsin Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has threatened to impeach Protasiewicz over her decision not to recuse herself from a legislative redistricting case, and now a watchdog group is asking for the records from a secret panel of former judges Vos convened to advise him on the issue.
Protasiewicz officially joined the court on Aug. 1, and that same week, groups of voters filed two lawsuits challenging the latest Republican-drawn state legislative redistricting maps. Analyses have shown that Wisconsin is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, giving Republicans a stronghold in the state since 2011. The then-conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 2022 in favor of adopting GOP-drawn maps, which changed very little from the previous maps.
Leading up to the April 2022 Supreme Court election, Democrats campaigned on gaining a liberal majority on the court that could rule in favor of new maps. While she never said how she would rule in a potential redistricting case, Republicans have taken issue with comments Protasiewicz made on the campaign trail as well as with $2.5 million in funding her campaign received from the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Protasiewicz has promised to recuse herself from cases that involve the state Democratic Party; the party is not a defendant in either redistricting lawsuit.
“Whether or not I could continue to be fair or impartial on a case is one matter but on the other hand, the public deserves to have, really, also the appearance of fairness, the appearance of impartiality. And I don’t know that the public could really say, ‘Hmm, she’s fair,’ when she’s received $2.5 million from a particular entity,” Protasiewicz said, according to the Wisconsin Examiner.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would consider bringing impeachment proceedings against the justice if she did not recuse herself from the case.
“Justice Protasiewicz’s campaign statements reveal that her thumb is very much on the scale in this case,” Republican lawmakers said in a motions filed with the court in August.
On Oct. 6, however, Protasiewicz said she would not recuse herself, joining the other three liberal justices on the court to take up one of the redistricting lawsuits. The second lawsuit was dismissed.
“I will set aside my opinions and decide cases based on the law,” Protasiewicz wrote in her decision. “There will surely be many cases in which I reach results that I personally dislike. That is what it means to be a judge.”
Vos convened a secret group of three former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to advise him. Two of those justices – Jon Wilcox and David Prosser – have advised against impeachment. Prosser’s opinion was revealed through American Oversight’s records request, while Wilcox told the Associated Press his opinion.
Liberal watchdog group American Oversight has filed a lawsuit with the Dane County Circuit Court claiming Vos’ panel violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law because the group hasn’t held any public meetings, though Prosser has argued the group isn’t required to because it’s not a governmental body.
Documents received by American Oversight through public records requests revealed the names of all three of the justices and showed that Prosser had advised against impeachment. Vos turned over more than 20,000 pages of documents relating to the panel’s work.
“In my view, ‘corrupt conduct’ is not a term that is open to a mere political grievance,” Prosser wrote in a memo to Vos obtained and published by American Oversight.
“There should be no effort to impeach Justice Protasiewicz on anything we know now. Impeachment is so serious, severe and rare that it should not be considered unless the subject has committed a crime, or the subject has committed indisputable ‘corrupt conduct’ while ‘in office,’” he added.
The third justice, Patience Roggensack, has refused to turn over her records, however, prompting a court battle. Last week, a Dane County judge ordered her to hand over the records within 30 days.
Among the documents are text messages between Vos and a recipient who appears to be his chief of staff that the group says raise potential ethical concerns over asking an outside group to pay for a poll that may benefit Vos politically. In text messages, Vos suggested asking the conservative Institute for Reforming Government to conduct a poll on whether Protasiewicz should recuse herself from the redistricting case.
“Ask them to pay for it and make it public if it helps us,” Vos said, adding that they should use the group’s money.
Despite the opinions of Vos’ panel, impeachment of Protasiewicz is still on the table, Vos said last month, but it will depend on how she rules in the redistricting case.
The redistricting lawsuit now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court asks that all 132 members of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate be up for election in November 2024 in newly drawn districts. The process to redraw and adopt new maps would have to be completed by March 15, 2024, in order for candidates to have enough time to get on the fall ballot, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The court will hear oral arguments in the case on Nov. 21.