MADISON, Wis. — Republican lawmakers in this political battleground state appear to be easing off an effort to impeach a new liberal state Supreme Court justice who in her campaign promoted abortion rights and condemned gerrymandering.
Shortly after Janet Protasiewicz was sworn into office in August, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said he would consider impeaching her if she did not remove herself from a case challenging the state’s legislative districts. Protasiewicz repeatedly called those districts “rigged” in favor of Republicans during her campaign, and Vos contended she had prejudged the issue.
On Friday, Protasiewicz in a lengthy decision said she would not step aside in the case, writing that she had expressed her views on gerrymandering but had not specified how she would rule on a particular case. But rather than move ahead with impeachment proceedings, as threatened, Vos fell silent.
Wisconsin is the latest state to exemplify the increasingly high stakes at play in judicial races. Protasiewicz, her opponent, political parties and interest groups spent more than $50 million on the race — the most ever on a judicial race in the country’s history. Protasiewicz’s victory ended 15 years of conservative control of the court and gave liberals a 4-3 majority that could issue decisions affecting abortion rights, voting policies, environmental regulations and the certification of the next presidential election.
Her decision to remain on the case raises the likelihood the court will redraw the district lines before next year’s election. Republicans view the case as an existential threat to their large majorities in the legislature, but Vos’s reaction to Protasiewicz’s decision to remain on the case was restrained.
On Friday and through the weekend, the speaker remained quiet. On Monday, Vos issued a short written statement that said she should have recused herself but didn’t mention impeachment. On Tuesday, documents were made public that showed a conservative former state Supreme Court justice tasked with advising Vos concluded that impeachment was not warranted.
“To sum up my views, there should be no effort to impeach Justice Protasiewicz on anything we know now,” former justice David Prosser wrote in a Friday memo to Vos.
Vos in recent days has not responded to questions about whether he is still considering impeachment. The idea has divided Republicans, and attempting it would prove more difficult now that Prosser has determined it isn’t warranted.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R), one of the most conservative lawmakers in Wisconsin, told Milwaukee’s CBS affiliate in remarks reported Tuesday that he opposed impeaching Protasiewicz, in part because Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) could replace her with someone else.
Republicans hold 22 of the 33 seats in the state Senate — exactly the number needed to remove an official who has been impeached by the State Assembly. Losing a single Senate vote could be fatal to their efforts because all Democrats are expected to rally behind Protasiewicz.
Republicans in the State Assembly hold 64 of 99 seats, well above the 50 votes they would need to impeach Protasiewicz. An impeachment would immediately bar Protasiewicz from acting on any cases and trigger intense pressure on the state Senate to hold a vote on whether to remove Protasiewicz or let her continue to serve.
Vos last month said he had formed a panel of former justices to advise him on impeachment but declined to name who was on it. The watchdog group American Oversight last month filed a lawsuit arguing the group of former justices was subject to the state’s open-meetings law and had to conduct its work in public.
In response to that lawsuit, Prosser released his memo and other documents. He also provided American Oversight with text messages and voice messages from former chief justice Patience Roggensack that suggest she has worked on the issue with Prosser. Those messages do not reveal her views on impeachment, but in one voice message she argued the group of former justices were not subject to the open-meetings law.
“We’re just ad hoc people who have an interest in what’s going on,” she said.
The threats to impeach Protasiewicz have come alongside an effort to remove the state’s nonpartisan elections director, Meagan Wolfe, from her job. Republicans in the state Senate last month voted to fire her, but lawyers for the legislature told them they didn’t have the power to do that. Wolfe has continued in her job, and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) has filed a lawsuit to try to ensure she keeps her position. In response, some Republicans have contended they should impeach Wolfe.