Wisconsin Democrats combat threatened impeachment of court justice with $4M effort

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Democratic Party on Wednesday launched a $4 million effort to pressure Republicans to back down from impeaching a new liberal state Supreme Court justice being targeted after she criticized GOP-drawn legislative electoral maps and spoke in favor of abortion rights.

After investing nearly $10 million in electing Justice Janet Protasiewicz, the effort is meant to protect what Democrats hailed as a major political victory. The judge’s election tipped the balance of power in the state Supreme Court, giving Democrats the upper hand in state’s fights over abortion and redistricting.

“Republicans are holding a political nuclear football,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said in reference to impeachment. He said the threat amounted to “political extortion.”

But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has been the most outspoken about possible impeachment, said on WISN-AM that Democrats were “trying to intimidate us” but Republicans won’t back down. Vos also said the Democrats’ action “doesn’t make it more or less likely” that Republicans will pursue impeachment.

Justices for the Wisconsin Supreme Court are officially nonpartisan, but the candidates have long aligned along partisan lines. That’s led to a highly politicized court, unlike in states like Minnesota, where judges — appointed by governors — have been uncontroversial.

The Wisconsin Constitution limits the reasons to impeach a sitting officeholder to corrupt conduct in office or the commission of a crime.

The Democratic effort, which leaders said will grow to include other groups, will include digital and television ads, in-person voter outreach, and a website tracking where every Republican lawmaker stands on impeachment.

“Politicians should not be overturning elections because they don’t like the results or the outcome,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard at a news conference outside the state Capitol. “And we cannot let Robin Vos and Wisconsin’s Republicans get away with this unconstitutional, unprecedented power grab in our state.”

Protasiewicz is part of a 4-3 liberal majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. The escalating fight over her seat has implications for the 2024 presidential election in the battleground state. In 2020, the conservative-controlled Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s win in the state. More fights over election rules that will be in place for the 2024 election are pending, and any disputes over the winner could be decided once again by the state Supreme Court.

Protasiewicz began her 10-year term in August after winning her election by 11 points in April, aided with nearly $10 million from the Wisconsin Democratic Party. During the campaign, Protasiewicz spoke in favor of abortion rights and called GOP-drawn maps “unfair” and “rigged.”

Protasiewicz never promised to rule one way or another on redistricting or abortion cases.

Her win gave liberals a majority on the court for the first time in 15 years, boosting hopes among Democrats that it will overturn the state’s 1849 abortion ban, throw out the Republican maps and possibly undo a host of Republican priorities.

Unable to defeat Protasiewicz in the election, Republican lawmakers are now talking about impeaching her because of her comments during the race and her acceptance of the money from the Democratic Party.

Republicans have raised impeachment as a possibility if Protasiewicz does not recuse herself from consideration of two redistricting lawsuits filed in her first week in office last month. The GOP-controlled Legislature asked for her to step aside from the cases.

Protasiewicz on Tuesday gave attorneys until Sept. 18 to react to the fact that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which investigates complaints against judges, dismissed complaints against her alleging her campaign comments on redistricting violated the state judicial code.

A lawsuit in a county court seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban was filed before Protasiewicz won the election. That case is expected to eventually reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cemented the party’s majorities, which now stand at 65-34 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. It would take only 50 votes to impeach. It takes 22 votes to convict in the Senate, the exact number of seats Republicans hold.

If the Assembly impeaches her, Protasiewicz would be barred from any duties as a justice until the Senate acted. That could effectively stop her from voting on redistricting without removing her from office and creating a vacancy that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would fill.

If there is a vacancy before December, that would trigger another Supreme Court election on the same date as Wisconsin’s presidential primary in April 2024.

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