Wisconsin Supreme Court May Decide on Impeaching One of Its Own

Gun Rights

Three voters in Wisconsin have filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court, asking the justices to decide the future of one of their own.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Tim Burns and two other voters on Monday urges the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block the state Legislature from impeaching newly elected liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz, arguing that removing her from office would violate the constitutional rights of Wisconsin voters.

The filing comes amid threats of impeachment from state Republicans, who want Protasiewicz to recuse herself from cases involving gerrymandered election maps, citing comments she made during her campaign that referred to those maps as “rigged” and donations her campaign received from the Democratic Party.

Protasiewicz, who has yet to rule on a single case, notched a landslide victory in April, flipping Republican control of the state Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years. The hotly contested race, which put voting rights and abortion rights on the ballot, was the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history, with spending surpassing $45 million.

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Wisconsin Supreme Court Fate
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz during the live taping of “Pod Save America” hosted by WisDems at the Barrymore Theater on March 18, 2023, in Madison, Wisconsin. Three voters in Wisconsin have filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court, asking the justices to decide the future of one of their own.
Jeff Schear/Getty Images

Republicans first floated the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz immediately after she defeated former Justice Daniel Kelly with more than 55 percent of the vote. Now, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ comments about actively considering impeachment have renewed those calls and ramped up pressure for Protasiewicz to recuse herself from the cases related to the state’s legislative maps and abortion.

But Burns, who ran for Protasiewicz’s seat in 2018 as a liberal candidate, argues in his lawsuit that an effort to impeach the newest state justice would result in putting the votes of more than a million Wisconsin voters “to the dustbin of history.” He also argues that it would open the door for more impeachments and strip voters of their right to elect their state Supreme Court justices and effectuate political change in the state.

“This harm would grow exponentially, irrevocably fracturing our government’s constitutional framework, the balance of power and our citizens’ right to vote,” the lawsuit reads. “The harm to our state and our way of life cannot be overstated.”

Protasiewicz could be removed from office by a simple majority of the Wisconsin Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans, but the lawsuit argues that legislators fail to put the justice’s campaign comments in the categories described as being impeachable conduct, which is “corrupt conduct in office or for the commission of a crime or misdemeanor,” according to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memo.

“The conduct of Justice Protasiewicz cannot be in any sense historically deemed as ‘corrupt,'” the lawsuit argues. “Justices routinely do not recuse themselves from issues upon which they have expressed clear points of view or in the context of previous donors to their campaigns appearing before them as litigants.”

Since the calls for impeachment have snowballed, many have pointed to the hypocrisy of other instances in which Wisconsin Supreme Court justices failed to recuse themselves from cases that they’ve spoken publicly against.

For example, conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley, who also voted to block a rule that forced justices to recuse themselves from cases involving their campaign donors, called herself “a strong supporter of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment” during her 2016 campaign. She has since invoked the Second Amendment in court.

Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn also promoted an endorsement by the National Rifle Association during his 2019 campaign. In a 2005 blog post, Hagedorn made comments calling Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization” but later refused to recuse himself from related cases.

The lawsuit is seeking an emergency order to block any impeachment proceedings against Protasiewicz. Although a conviction and removal would still require two-thirds majority of the state Senate, she would have to recuse herself from cases until a trial is completed.

The state Supreme Court has not yet accepted the case. It is unclear if Protasiewicz has plans to recuse herself from the upcoming gerrymandering cases.

Newsweek reached out to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Vos via email for comment.

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