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Conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler accuses liberal majority of meeting in secret

GOP leaders call Supreme Court liberal majority's pick for state director unconstitutional

Stairs lead up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court inside the state capitol building.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The new liberal majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court has been in place less than a week, but there’s more controversy swirling with the chief justice alleging secret meetings and GOP leaders calling decisions by the court unlawful.

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, a conservative, released a statement Friday accusing the four liberal members of the court of going “rogue” and meeting in “a secret, unscheduled, illegitimate closed meeting,” in an attempt to cut her authority.

“Court business concerning Internal Operating Procedures and Supreme Court Rules is conducted when seven members of the court convene with an agenda prepared by the Chief Justice and at a time set by the Chief Justice during the court’s business year, which is September-June,” Ziegler wrote in a statement. “The rogue justices’ attempt to go outside of this recognized procedure is an imposition of will and a raw exercise of overreaching power. Any such attempted action is illegitimate and unenforceable.”

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Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet responded to Ziegler’s allegations with a statement late Friday afternoon.

According to Dallet, the justices asked several times, beginning in May, for a meeting to be scheduled in August. She said Ziegler refused. Dallet said proposed rule changes from the new majority were shared with all the justices, and all were invited to attend a meeting Friday or to vote by email.

“Contrary to the Chief’s assertion, the court has not yet approved a calendar for this term. Any court member can move to hold a meeting, and a majority agreed that a meeting would be held today,” Dallet stated.

Ziegler has been critical of the liberal justices’ recent firing of Randy Koschnick as the state court system director.

But liberal Dallet said the moves the majority is making advances a number of transparency and accountability measures.

“First, we have made a series of rules and operating procedures changes to make Court decision-making more inclusive, timely, and responsive,” Dallet said in a statement released Friday. “Second, we are committed to making all orders more readily accessible on our website. Third, we have voted to re-open our administrative conferences. And fourth, we will be announcing the creation of a bipartisan task force to study the issue of recusal and to present us with recommendations.”

The back and forth between the justices comes one day after Republican legislative leaders said the appointment of a Milwaukee judge to interim position of state court system director, one day after firing Koschnick, is unconstitutional and should be rescinded.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, allege the state constitution prohibits Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Audrey Skwierawski from holding any office of public trust besides judge during her judicial term, which expires July 2025.

“On only their 3rd day, the liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court has telegraphed their intention to disregard the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold to achieve partisan revenge,” LeMahieu wrote in a letter to the court’s liberal justices. “Wisconsinites should be troubled by this blatant disregard for the Constitution and rule of law.”

LeMahieu and Vos did not respond to Wisconsin Public Radio for further comment.

The director of state courts is the top non-judicial officer of the state court system and has authority and responsibility for the overall management of the court system. The position works with the justices, chief judges and staff of Wisconsin’s 10 judicial administrative districts to address personnel, budgeting and information technology needs, among other duties.

The day after Justice Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in, swinging the court to a liberal majority for the first time since 2008, Koschnick was fired.

A letter, dated Aug. 2 and signed by liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley on behalf of the court, informed of his firing, effective that day.

“This letter is to inform you that your appointment to the unclassified position of Director of State Courts will be ending on August 2, 2023,” the letter read. “We appreciate the contributions you have made to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

Koschnick has told media outlets he has not been told why he was fired, but believes the move is political.

In 2009, Koschnick, a former Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, ran against then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson for a seat on the Supreme Court. He was appointed director of the state’s court system in 2017 by former Chief Justice Patience Roggensack under the court’s previous conservative majority.

None of the justices have spoken publicly on the issue.

Skwierawski has practiced law since 1992, first serving as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County and later as an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice in Madison.

She was appointed judge in 2018 by former Gov. Scott Walker.

“I’m honored to have the trust of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Skwierawski said in a statement this week. “I look forward to working with the justices, as well as judges and court staff across Wisconsin, to ensure that they have the tools and support to administer justice and serve the people of our state.”