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Wisconsin Assembly Speaker renews calls for Protasiewicz to recuse herself from certain cases

Robin Vos raises the possibility of starting impeachment process, but cautions it should be not be undertaken lightly

Janet Protasiewicz stands in front of a crowd as she swears in.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz is sworn in by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is renewing calls for Wisconsin’s newly elected Supreme Court justice to recuse herself from some cases.

If Justice Janet Protasiewicz does not do so, Vos suggested lawmakers might consider turning to impeachment.

In an interview with WSAU Radio on Friday, Vos said it’s clear Protasiewicz can’t be an impartial judge on certain issues. He gave the example of remarks Protasiewicz made during her campaign, in which she referred to Wisconsin’s electoral maps as “rigged.”

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“If there’s any semblance of honor on the state Supreme Court left, you cannot have a person who runs for the court prejudging a case and being open about it, and then acting on the case as if you’re an impartial observer,” Vos told conservative host Meg Ellefson.

Vos raises possibility of impeachment, but cautions it can’t be undertaken lightly

In response to questions from Ellefson about options for removing Protasiewicz, Vos said it’s far too soon to turn to impeachment.

Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge with Democratic supporters, beat Republican-backed former state Justice Dan Kelly in April’s election by a whopping 11 percentage points.

“Elections have consequence and the fact that, a couple days after the swearing in, people are already talking about impeachment really makes impeachment seem like it’s something that’s more casual or cavalier than it should be,” Vos said.

Nonetheless, Vos suggested lawmakers could consider the possibility in the future, depending on whether Protasiewicz steps down from certain cases.

“The idea that we’re going to immediately start an impeachment process is probably too radical,” Vos said. “I want to look and see, does she recuse herself on cases where she is prejudged? That to me is something that is at the oath of office and what she said she was going to do to uphold the Constitution. That, to me, is a serious offense.”

Janet Protasiewicz points at Dan Kelly as they debate on stage.
Judge Janet Protasiewicz points at Justice Dan Kelly during a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Democratic minority leader disputes notion that Protasiewicz can’t be an impartial judge

Protasiewicz, who was sworn in on Aug. 1, declined to comment on Vos’ remarks. But Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, accused Vos of trying to weaponize “threats” of impeachment.

“She (Protasiewicz) has been proven to be resoundingly popular with the people of the state of Wisconsin who are fed up with Republican antics,” Agard said. “These comments that are being made by Speaker Vos, frankly, are threats to the will of the people and to democracy in Wisconsin.”

Agard disputed the notion that Protasiewicz is unfit to decide on issues like redistricting.

“Scholars have been studying the district lines in Wisconsin as well as in other states, and it is clear that gerrymandering has a negative effect on democracy,” Agard said. “(That’s) simply referring to … what are known facts and indicating a problem here in the state of Wisconsin that needs to be addressed.”

A day after Protasiewicz took office, a coalition of progressive law firms and Democratic voters sued in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court to try and overturn Republican-drawn legislative maps. The nonpartisan Gerrymandering Project from Princeton University gives Wisconsin’s current political maps an “F” grade for partisan fairness, finding they give Republicans a “significant” advantage.

In the run-up to the election, Protasiewicz said she’d likely recuse herself from cases directly involving the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, a major donor to her campaign. But Protasiewicz said she still planned to weigh in on issues including redistricting and abortion. Protasiewicz’s support for abortion rights was a centerpiece of her campaign amid an ongoing lawsuit from Wisconsin’s Attorney General which seeks to block prosecutions of abortions under a 19th-century state law.

State Republicans theoretically have majorities needed to impeach public officials

As of this spring, state Republicans now hold the majority in the Assembly and the supermajority in the Senate which would be theoretically necessary to impeach and remove a public official.

Even so, if Protasiewicz were to be impeached, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would be tasked with appointing her replacement.

Wisconsin’s Constitution allows for the impeachment of “civil officers of this state” because of corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors,” according to an analysis from the Legislative Reference Bureau.

In Wisconsin’s history, only one state official has ever been impeached. In 1853, the state Assembly voted to impeach Circuit Judge Levi Hubbel on charges of corruption, but he was never removed from office by the state Senate.