Wisconsin GOP Assembly leader backs off threat to impeach Supreme Court judge over redistricting

Almost immediately after Janet Protasiewicz was elected to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court last April, flipping it to a liberal majority, Republican leaders threatened to impeach her if she didn’t recuse herself from a case challenging the state’s heavily gerrymandered electoral maps. This was because after being seated on the court in August, Protasiewicz refused to recuse herself from the Democratic-backed lawsuit seeking to throw out Republican-drawn electoral maps, drawing even more impeachment threats from Republicans.

Protasiewicz’s victory had resulted in a 4-3 liberal majority on the court, ending a 15-year period in which conservative justices held control. But now faced with intense backlash, Robin Vos, the Republican leader of Wisconsin’s Assembly who threatened possible impeachment of Protasiewicz in August, has pivoted and now says that such a move is “super unlikely,” The Associated Press reported.

RELATED STORY: Former Wisconsin GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel is running for the state Supreme Court

The AP wrote:

When asked in an interview Wednesday if he would move to impeach Protasiewicz if she orders new maps to be drawn, Vos said, “I think it’s very unlikely.”

“It’s one of the tools that we have in our toolbox that we could use at any time,” Vos said of impeachment. “Is it going to be used? I think it’s super unlikely.”

However, Vos refused to rule it out.

“We don’t know what could happen, right?” he said. “There could be a scandal where something occurs. I don’t know.”

Wisconsin’s Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler posted this reaction on X, formerly known as Twitter:

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In September, Wikler announced that the state Democratic Party was launching a $4 million effort to to pressure Republicans to back down from impeaching Protasiewicz. At the time he said the Republicans were “holding a political nuclear football” and engaging in “political extortion.”

According to Associated Press analysis, Wisconsin’s Assembly districts rank among the most gerrymandered in the U.S., with Republicans routinely winning far more seats than would be expected based on their average share of the vote in statewide elections. Joe Biden flipped Wisconsin in the 2020 presidential election, defeating Donald Trump by a narrow margin of 49.6% to 48.9%, a difference of 20,000 votes. In April 2023, with abortion rights a key issue, Protasiewicz defeated Republican Dan Kelly by 55.5% to 45.5%, a margin of nearly 200,000 votes.

Yet, as the AP pointed out, the legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cemented the party’s majorities. Republicans now control the Assembly by a 64-35 margin, and hold a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. Last year, the GOP approved maps that were similar to the existing ones.

In October, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the legal challenge to the Republican-drawn maps. Election lawyer Marc Elias’ group, Democracy Docket, wrote on its website:

The petitioners in Clarke v. Wisconsin Elections Commission allege that the Wisconsin state Assembly and Senate maps are extreme partisan gerrymanders that unduly favor Republicans in violation of the state constitution.

The petition notes that for the past two decades, Wisconsin’s legislative plans have been among the most gerrymandered in the country: “In 2012, Republicans won 48.6% of the statewide vote, which yielded a remarkable 60 assembly seats. … When Democrats received roughly the same vote share, they carried 36 assembly seats. … From the 2012 through the 2020 elections, Republicans never fell below 60 seats—winning up to 64, or nearly two-thirds of the seats. In 2018, Republicans won 63 seats with just 44.8% of the vote.”  

Last month, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the redistricting lawsuit and is expected to issue its decision by early 2024. The plaintiffs are asking that all 132 state lawmakers be required to stand for election in 2024 under newly redrawn maps. Under current law, all Wisconsin Assembly members and about half the state Senate are up for election next year.

The wheels came off the Republicans’ threat to impeach Protasiewicz in October. That’s when two of three former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justices asked by Vos to investigate the possibility of impeachment told the Assembly leader it was not warranted. Former Justice David Prosser wrote to Vos:

“To sum up my views, 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.’”

Article VII of the Wisconsin Constitution reserves impeachment for “corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Republicans’ threats to Protasiewicz were based on political statements that she made while campaigning for the seat in which she referred to the legislative maps as “rigged.” Republicans claimed that this constituted a predetermination of how she would rule on a case challenging the maps. In early October, Protasiewicz rejected calls from Republican justices to recuse herself from redistricting cases. The AP reported:

Protasiewicz said that while stating her opinion about the maps during the campaign, she never made a promise or pledge about how she would rule on the cases.

“I will set aside my opinions and decide cases based on the law,” she wrote. “There will surely be many cases in which I reach results that I personally dislike. That is what it means to be a judge.”

Democracy Docket also said that Republican lawmakers also took issue with the financial contributions made by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to her campaign. However, Jay Heck, director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause of Wisconsin called the Republicans’ “selected outrage” hypocritical because all but one of the seven sitting justices had accepted contributions from a political party.

The prospect of actually removing Protasiewicz from the court also became a less attractive option. That’s because if she were impeached by the Assembly and convicted by the Senate, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would now get to name her replacement rather than have to call a special election, which would have been required if she had been removed prior to Dec. 1, the AP reported.

And it’s good news for abortion rights activists that Protasiewicz remains in place to keep the liberal 4-3 majority intact. On Tuesday, a Republican district attorney appealed a court ruling that determined that an 1849 Wisconsin law does not ban abortions, the AP reported. That decision cleared the way for abortions to resume in the state. The appeal filed by Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski is likely to ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court. And Protasiewicz is a supporter of abortion rights.

RELATED STORY: Wisconsin Supreme Court hearing arguments on redistricting that could result in new maps for 2024

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