published : 2023-09-06

Ethics Complaints Against WI Justice Protasiewicz Dismissed

Several complaints alleging violation of judicial code of ethics rejected

A photo of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz during her campaign, taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera.

A state judiciary disciplinary panel has dismissed multiple complaints lodged against Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who was accused of violating the judicial code of ethics during her campaign. This decision comes as a setback to Republicans who argued that her remarks could justify impeachment.

Protasiewicz received a letter from the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, stating that 'several complaints' regarding her campaign comments had been dismissed without any further action. The commission's actions are typically private, but Protasiewicz obtained permission to release the letter to the public, which she then provided to The Associated Press.

In April, Protasiewicz's victory in the election resulted in a shift of control of Wisconsin's Supreme Court from conservative to liberal for the first time in 15 years. Her campaign was strongly supported by Democrats, and she openly criticized the Republican-drawn electoral maps and expressed support for abortion rights.

Republican lawmakers have recently discussed the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz due to her remarks about the 'unfair' and 'rigged' legislative maps they had created. However, Protasiewicz never made any promises regarding her stance on redistricting or abortion cases.

Protasiewicz assumed office in August and, in her first week, faced two lawsuits from Democratic-friendly groups seeking to overturn the Republican-drawn legislative electoral maps. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether to hear these cases, and there has been a motion from the Republican-controlled Legislature requesting her recusal.

As a response to the commission's order, Protasiewicz sent a copy of it to the attorneys involved in the redistricting cases, asking for their response by September 18 regarding its impact on the request for her recusal.

A photo of a courtroom in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where the disciplinary panel reviewed complaints against Justice Protasiewicz, taken with a Nikon D850 camera.

Additionally, there is a separate lawsuit in a county court aimed at overturning Wisconsin's 1849 abortion ban, which was filed before Protasiewicz's election. It is expected that this case will eventually reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

One of the complaints against Protasiewicz, filed by a Republican supporter named Randall Cook, alleged that she had made declarations about how she would rule on abortion and redistricting cases, which would violate the state judicial code. The Wisconsin Republican Party expressed disappointment with the Judicial Commission's decision, claiming bias on their part.

The letter from the Judicial Commission to Protasiewicz mentioned that 'several complaints' had been received and dismissed without action. While the commission did not provide specific reasons for their dismissals, they stated that they had thoroughly reviewed Protasiewicz's comments, the judicial code of ethics, state Supreme Court rules, as well as relevant decisions by state and U.S. supreme courts.

Protasiewicz, when approached about the commission's action, declined to comment.

The nine-member Judicial Commission plays a crucial role in addressing concerns about the actions of Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin. Its responsibility is to investigate judges and court commissioners accused of violating the state's judicial code of conduct. The commission consists of two lawyers and two judges appointed by the Supreme Court, as well as five non-lawyers appointed by the governor.

Parts of the state Senate judiciary committee, with Republican members, have questioned judicial ethics commissioners up for reappointment regarding when justices and judges should recuse themselves from cases, particularly if they label a case as 'rigged'—a reference to Protasiewicz's campaign remarks.

A photo of protesters advocating for fair redistricting outside the Wisconsin Supreme Court, captured with a Sony Alpha A7 III camera.

Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, argue that Protasiewicz has already made prejudgments about the pending redistricting cases before the Supreme Court through her campaign statements. They also claim that she cannot fairly preside over these cases due to the nearly $10 million in campaign donations she received from the Wisconsin Democratic Party, a party that did not file the lawsuits but has advocated for new maps.

Vos insists that Protasiewicz should recuse herself from any Wisconsin redistricting case. The commission's letter, in his opinion, only further complicates matters.

The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 solidified the party's majorities in Wisconsin, which currently stand at 65-34 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. It would require 50 votes to impeach Protasiewicz, while 22 votes are needed for conviction in the Senate—an exact match to the number of seats held by Republicans.

If the Assembly were to impeach Protasiewicz, she would be barred from carrying out any justice duties until the Senate takes action. This could effectively prevent her from participating in the redistricting decisions without her removal from office, which would lead to Democratic Governor Tony Evers appointing a replacement.

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