Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz attends her first public hearing as a justice on Sept. 7, 2023, in the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Andy Manis for Wisconsin Watch)
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The Republican leader of Wisconsin’s Assembly refused to back down Thursday from possibly impeaching a newly elected liberal state Supreme Court justice over her refusal to step aside in a redistricting case, even after two former conservative justices advised him against the unprecedented move.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos originally threatened to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz if she did not recuse from the redistricting challenge, which is backed by Democrats seeking to throw out Republican-drawn electoral maps. But Protasiewicz said last week she’s staying on the case.

Now, Vos is tying possible impeachment to how she rules on the case, emphasizing the importance of following past precedent.

“If they decide to inject their own political bias inside the process and not follow the law, we have the ability to go to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Vos said, “and we also have the ability to hold her accountable to the voters of Wisconsin.”

Oral arguments in the redistricting case are set for Nov. 21. A ruling likely won’t come until after the Dec. 1 deadline for calling a special election to replace Protasiewicz, if she were removed from office or resigned. That means Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would appoint her replacement, who would almost certainly be another liberal.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said Vos’s comments are a signal that Republicans are backing off from impeaching Protasiewicz “and moving the goal posts.” He called the impeachment threat “an outrageous attempt at political extortion.”

“Time will tell if it’s just an attempt to save face,” Wikler said. “But right now, it’s a climb-down.”

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Vos first floated the possibility of impeachment in August after Protasiewicz called the Republican-drawn legislative boundary maps “rigged” and “unfair” during her campaign. Impeachment has drawn bipartisan opposition and two former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, asked by Vos to investigate the possibility, told him in the past week it was not warranted. Vos refused to say what advice he got from the third retired justice.

Wisconsin’s Assembly districts rank among the most gerrymandered nationally, with Republicans routinely winning far more seats than would be expected based on their average share of the vote, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cemented the party’s majorities, which now stand at 64-35 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. Republicans adopted maps last year that were similar to the existing ones.

The lawsuit before the state Supreme Court asks that all 132 state lawmakers be up for election in 2024 in newly drawn districts.

Vos also said Protasiewicz’s acceptance of nearly $10 million from the Wisconsin Democratic Party would unduly influence her ruling.

Protasiewicz last week rejected those arguments, noting that other justices have accepted campaign cash and not recused from cases. She also noted that she never promised or pledged to rule on the redistricting lawsuit in any way. A state judiciary disciplinary panel has rejected several complaints against Protasiewicz that alleged she violated the judicial code of ethics with comments she made during the campaign.

Other justices, both conservative and liberal, have spoken out in the past on issues that could come before the court, although not always during their run for office like Protasiewicz did. Current justices have also accepted campaign cash from political parties and others with an interest in court cases and haven’t recused themselves. But none of them has faced threats of impeachment.

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Scott Bauer is the head of the AP bureau in Madison, covering state government and politics.