Wisconsin Republicans Walk Back Efforts to Impeach Newly Elected State Supreme Court Justice Protasiewicz

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, Oct. 12, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and fellow Republicans indicated that they would walk back their impeachment crusade against liberal state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz. 

This comes after last week when former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser advised Vos that there should be “no effort to impeach” Protasiewicz over her refusal to recuse herself from an ongoing legal challenge to the state’s legislative maps. 

Today, in what appears to be an attempt to retract his threats, Vos clarified that any impeachment inquiries going forward would rest on what the justice does while “in office.”

In September, Vos formed a secret panel — led by Prosser — of three conservative former state Supreme Court justices to review the possibility of impeachment. A legal filing in a lawsuit against the secret nature of the panel revealed that Prosser was joined by former Justices Jon Wilcox and Patience Roggensack, the now-retired Supreme Court justice whom Protasiewicz succeeded after winning in April. Yesterday, Wilcox confirmed that he also does not favor impeachment. Roggensack, who has not weighed in publicly yet, rejected a call to implement stricter recusal standards in 2017. Additionally, while on the bench, Prosser and Roggensack supported a rule allowing justices to sit on cases that involved previous campaign donors.  

Since her election in April, the state’s Republicans have been threatening to impeach the newly elected Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself from a redistricting lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s legislative maps.

The calls have focused on political statements that Protasiewicz made while campaigning earlier this year. Specifically, she has referred to the maps as “rigged.” Republicans argued this constituted a predetermination of how the justice would rule on a case challenging the maps. In September, a state judiciary disciplinary panel rejected multiple complaints filed by Republicans alleging the statements violated ethics rules.   

Republican lawmakers have also taken issue with the financial contributions made by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to her campaign. Neither issue, however, violates the state constitution or statute. Jay Heck, the director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause of Wisconsin, called the Republicans’ “selective outrage” hypocritical. All but one of the sitting justices have accepted contributions from a party at the national, state or county level. 

As Prosser referenced, impeachment is permitted under Wisconsin statute only for corrupt conduct in office or for the commission of a crime. It takes a simple majority in the state Assembly to impeach and a two-thirds majority in the state Senate to convict. However, on Tuesday of this week, state Sen. Duey Stroebel became the first Republican in the Wisconsin Senate to explicitly oppose impeaching Protasiewicz and state Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R) followed suit on Wednesday.

The Senate Republicans now lack the necessary supermajority to convict and remove Protasiewicz should Vos and Assembly Republicans make good on their threats to impeach.

Last Friday, just after Prosser advised Vos on the panel’s findings, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to hear a legal challenge to the Republican-drawn maps. 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.”  

In agreeing to hear the case, Protasiewicz also denied the Wisconsin Legislature’s motion for recusal. In the order, the newly elected justice argued, “Recusal decisions are controlled by the law. They are not a matter of personal preference… As Justice Prosser has warned, unjustified recusal can affect the integrity of the judicial branch.” 

Vos’ backtracking is a shift from earlier in the week. Just three days ago, in a statement responding to Protasiewicz’s decision not to recuse herself, Vos said he felt she should have, and warned that “the United States Supreme Court will have the last word here.” 

With a resounding 11-point margin of victory, Protasiewicz’s election in April is viewed as a referendum on the future of Wisconsin.  

Read Prosser’s letter to Vos here.

Read Protasiewicz’s denial of the motion to recuse here.