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Wisconsin Republicans grill judicial commissioners with a focus on high court's new liberal majority

Judge Janet Protasiewicz delivers her victory speech after winning a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela
Angela Major
Judge Janet Protasiewicz delivers her victory speech after winning a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela

Wisconsin Republicans grilled members of the state's judicial ethics commission who are up for Senate confirmation, pressing them Tuesday to say how they would handle complaints that could come against the new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court.

The hearing foreshadows what could be a looming battle between Republicans who control the Legislature and the state Supreme Court, which liberal justices took control of this month for the first time in 15 years. The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Van Wanggaard, said after the hearing that he was impressed with all three nominees, but he conceded that he hadn't discussed their status with his party's leadership.

Republican legislative leaders have been calling on Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose victory tipped the court to liberal control, to recuse herself from cases expected before the court on redistricting and abortion. Protasiewicz made abortion rights central to her campaign earlier this year and also called the Republican-drawn legislative maps “rigged.”

Her comments outraged conservatives but appeared to fall short of saying how she would rule on those issues. Judges may publicly express their beliefs and opinions but are prohibited from saying how they would rule on cases that could come before them.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the state's top Republican, threatened to impeach Protasiewicz if she doesn't step back from a redistricting case filed with the court the day after she took office.

GOP senators on Tuesday quizzed the three judicial ethics commissioners up for reappointment about their past political contributions, when they would recuse themselves from a case and how they would weigh comments similar to those made by Protasiewicz.

The full Senate, which Republicans control 22-11, will ultimately vote on whether to confirm Janet Jenkins, Mary Beth Keppel and Judy Ziewacz. Senate rejection carries the effect of firing them.

The nine-member Judicial Commission is one of the few avenues through which people can challenge the actions of Supreme Court justices. It is tasked with investigating judges and court commissioners who are accused of violating the state’s judicial code of conduct. Its members include two lawyers and two judges appointed by the Supreme Court and five non-lawyers appointed by the governor to three-year terms.

The commission can make recommendations and prosecute judges for ethics violations. However, the Supreme Court ultimately determines guilt and sets punishments. In past cases where the commission has taken action against Supreme Court justices, the court has deadlocked or seen too many justices recuse themselves, preventing a ruling.

Lawmakers honed in Tuesday on Ziewacz's position on the board of Law Forward, one of the liberal groups behind the redistricting lawsuit before the Supreme Court. Ziewacz assured them that she would consider recusing herself from any complaints involving the group's litigation, and other commissioners provided examples of cases in which they had recused themselves due to conflicts of interest.

Sens. Kelda Roys and Lena Taylor, the committee’s Democratic members, called Republicans’ line of questioning “disrespectful” to the commissioners’ experience and professionalism.

After the hearing, Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, the committee's chair, noted his concerns about Ziewacz's involvement with Law Forward but said he was impressed by each of the commissioners. Wanggaard also said he had not discussed the appointments with Senate leadership.

“I liked the testimony from all three," he said. "From the answers that I got, and the demeanor that each one of these candidates brought to today's interview, I think it was pretty positive.”

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