Even after conservative former justices warn against it, Vos may still try to impeach Protasiewicz

Gun Rights

Only a justice for two months, Protasiewicz has yet to hear a challenge to Republicans’ gerrymandered maps—but the Assembly Speaker is threatening impeachment if he doesn’t like how she rules on the case.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday impeachment of newly-elected state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz could still be attempted, even after two conservative former justices consulting Vos advised against attempting such a nakedly partisan option.

Speaking to reporters ahead of an Assembly floor session, Vos was asked if an impeachment effort is off the table after hearing opposition from former Justices Jon Wilcox and David Prosser.

“No, absolutely not,” Vos replied.

Vos and other Republican legislators began talking about impeaching Protasiewicz even before she was elected in April, defeating conservative former Justice Dan Kelly by a substantial margin. The election ended 15 years of conservative justices having a majority on the court. Although past Supreme Court justices and candidates have made statements about their values and have received support from the Republican and Democratic parties, Protasiewicz is being threatened with possible removal for stating her feelings that the current legislative boundaries are “rigged” and “unfair.”

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The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 and 2021 are widely regarded as among the nation’s most gerrymandered—a term used to describe how districts are drawn to increase a party’s advantage well beyond what could be expected based on their average share of the statewide vote. Although Wisconsin is definitively a 50-50 state in terms of partisan balance of its electorate, the maps drawn by Republicans have given them majorities that currently stand at 64-35 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. 

Despite the inherent bias of the existing maps, Vos said it’s the four progressive justices who are biased—and that Protasiewicz could be punished by Republicans if she were to rule in favor of a new legal challenge to the current boundaries.

“If they decide to inject their own political bias inside the process and not follow the law, we have the ability to go to the US Supreme Court,” Vos said, “and we also have the ability to hold her accountable to the voters of Wisconsin.”

Last year, the conservative justices on the US Supreme Court helped Republican legislators impose the current maps, despite not having enough votes to override a veto from Gov. Tony Evers. The justices threw out a map submitted by Evers and approved by the state Supreme Court, then under conservative control.

A state judiciary disciplinary panel has rejected several complaints against Protasiewicz that alleged she violated the judicial code of ethics with comments she made during the campaign. On Friday, she declined to recuse herself, and the court voted 4-3 along partisan lines to hear the redistricting challenge. Oral arguments are set for Nov. 21.

Vos Asked for Advice, Isn’t Following It

Vos announced last month he had asked three former justices to review the possibility of impeachment, but he refused to name them. This week their identities were confirmed as Prosser, Wilcox, and Patience Roggensack. Prosser advised against impeachment in an email to Vos last Friday, saying “there should be no effort to impeach Justice Protasiewicz on anything we know now.” 

Wilcox told The Associated Press that there was nothing to justify the threat.

“I do not favor impeachment,” Wilcox told AP in a telephone interview. “Impeachment is something people have been throwing around all the time. But I think it’s for very serious things.”

Protasiewicz last week rejected those arguments, noting that other justices have accepted campaign cash and not recused from cases. She also noted that she never promised or pledged to rule on the redistricting lawsuit in any way.

Prosser turned his email over to the liberal watchdog group American Oversight as part of an open records request. The group has filed a lawsuit alleging that the panel Vos created is breaking the state open meetings law. The records Prosser turned over show he was also apparently working with former Chief Justice Roggensack.

Roggensack served 20 years on the court and her retirement this year created the vacancy that Protasiewicz filled with her election win in April. Wilcox was on the court from 1992 to 2007 and Prosser served from 1998 to 2016.

Conservative Justices Have Endorsed, Donated

Prosser and Roggensack accepted in-kind donations from the Wisconsin Republican Party when they were on the court. Roggensack also accepted campaign cash from Republican candidate committees and county parties during her last run in 2013.

Roggensack and Prosser voted to enact a rule allowing justices to sit on cases involving campaign donors. In 2017, a year after Prosser left the court, Roggensack voted to reject a call from 54 retired justices and judges to enact stricter recusal rules.

Both Roggensack and Wilcox donated $1,000 each to a Protasiewicz opponent, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow. She finished third in the primary behind Protasiewicz and another conservative candidate, Dan Kelly. Wilcox in 2020 gave Kelly $500.

Prosser also donated $500 to Kelly’s campaign this year. Roggensack didn’t give money to Kelly, but she did endorse him after he advanced in the primary.

Conservative Justices Have Been Outspoken

During her 2016 campaign, conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley called herself “a strong supporter of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment” when speaking on radio shows about her endorsement by the National Rifle Association. In mailers, she posed with a shotgun, orange hunting vest and baseball cap with the NRA logo in an implicit appeal to gun-owners.

On the topic of abortion, Bradley has come under fire for columns she wrote in the 1990’s for Marquette University’s student newspaper that bashed gay people, feminism and abortion rights. One column compared abortion to murder, the Holocaust and slavery. In another, she wrote she had no sympathy for AIDS patients.

Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn drew criticism for his comments on abortion and homosexuality. In blog posts beginning in 2005, Hagedorn compared homosexuality to bestiality, called Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization” that was more devoted “to killing babies than to helping women,” and wrote that “Christianity is the correct religion.”

The blog posts do not appear to continue during the time he was campaigning for a state Supreme Court seat in 2019, but he criticized the outcry over his comments as an attack on his Catholic faith and refused to recuse himself in related cases.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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