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Robin Vos and Wisconsin Republicans’ impeachment threat is outrageous and undemocratic. It’s also completely predictable.
Working to invalidate or undermine or overturn election results? This is nothing new for Vos & Co.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
None of this is surprising, frankly.
While the threat to impeach newly-elected Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz before she has even heard a case is absurd and reprehensible and wildly un-democratic, it is exactly the type of behavior we’ve come to expect from Wisconsin Republicans and especially from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Protasiewicz was elected on April 4 and seated on the court Aug. 1. Vos and Wisconsin Republicans are threatening to impeach Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself from a key case on redistricting. Good explainers on what’s happening can be found in pieces from WPR and The New York Times, but the gist of the matter is that Republicans are upset with the way Protasiewicz talked about the state’s legislative maps while campaigning for office. And with a case challenging whether or not the current maps are legal under the state constitution being one of the first this new liberal majority court could see and rule on — with new maps for the 2024 election potential in the balance — determining how this case is heard is an especially urgent matter.
Impeachment requires a majority vote in the State Assembly and a two-thirds supermajority vote in the State Senate. Wisconsin Republicans enjoy a large majority in the Assembly and have a two-thirds supermajority in the State Senate, giving them the votes to do this, if it were to happen on a strict party-line vote. Impeachment of a Wisconsin judge has only happened once in state history, in 1853 over corruption charges, and the State Senate didn’t convict.
What this unprecedented move to impeach shows, though, is that Vos and state Republicans have a real problem with accepting the results of an election, with accepting the voice of the majority of Wisconsin's voters.
In 2018, after Tony Evers narrowly defeated Scott Walker and Democrats swept statewide races, Vos and legislative Republicans moved to strip powers from the governor and attorney general’s offices during the following lame-duck session.
In 2020, after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump to win the state’s ten electoral votes, Vos almost immediately called committee hearings to question the results of the election, and later appointed former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman to undertake a sprawling, conspiratorial, expensive 14-month review of the election results, ultimately finding no evidence of widespread election fraud. In between, state Republicans sent a set of fake electoral votes to Washington – with an attempted assist from Sen. Ron Johnson – as part of the plot to overturn the election.
In 2022, following an election that saw Evers’ re-elected to a second term and Republicans win two-thirds of seats in the State Senate, Vos quickly turned to a a right-wing talk radio host to detail how this new supermajority unlocked a “new power” to impeach elected state officials – including the governor or state Supreme Court justices.
So in 2023, it is not surprising that Vos and Co. would again respond to the results of an election – in this case, a ground-shifting 11-point landslide victory the likes of which rarely happens in the 50-50 purple state that is Wisconsin – by working to effectively undo the votes of the more than one million people who showed up to deliver change to the state’s highest court. Wisconsin Republicans have tried to invalidate or undermine election results before so we should not be left aghast when they try to do it again. And it should be even less surprising in this instance since Republican Dan Knodl – then-Assembly representative, now-state senator – would campaign on this impeachment threat before his narrow victory in the same April Spring Election. That’s right: he campaigned on impeaching Protasiewicz even before she was elected to be a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice.
The outright contempt Vos and state Republicans have shown for the people of Wisconsin and for the state’s democratic process is beyond abhorrent. Time and time again, it seems as if their guiding policy is that only Republicans should be allowed to govern, even if voters continue to elect Democrats and Democratic-backed candidates – who just happen to be the winners of 14 of the last 17 statewide elections.
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At the crux of the issue surrounding these ludicrous impeachment threats are the maps for the state legislature. Perhaps this is fitting, as the maps are at the core of what has broken politics in the state of Wisconsin.
For Vos, it is always about power consolidation at all costs. And nothing has been a more effective tool for maintaining power no matter how many statewide elections they lose than their maps.
These maps for the Wisconsin State Legislature are widely considered to be among the nation’s most gerrymandered, so much so that a Harvard University study said Wisconsin qualified as a “democracy desert,” on par with countries that are not democracies. The maps have gotten even worse since that study, as GOP-introduced maps that were ultimately adopted as part of the 2021 redistricting cycle shore up Republican vulnerabilities in swinger districts, particularly in places like the Milwaukee area suburbs that have been zooming to the left. These maps are so tilted to one side that, in that 2022 election, Republicans had a far better chance of gaining a two-thirds supermajority in the state legislature than Democrats had of winning a simple majority. This was two seats away from happening – on the same ballots that delivered a resounding re-election victory to the Democratic governor.
Miss some of our prior coverage on gerrymandering in Wisconsin? Catch up here.
Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country. The race for Wisconsin Supreme Court could change that.
Zero People Spoke in Support of Republican-Proposed Maps at a 9-Hour Public Hearing. Wisconsin is Fed Up with Extreme Gerrymandering in the State Legislature.
In the lone public hearing on redistricting in October of 2021 — in which no individual spoke in favor of Republican-introduced maps over the course of a nine-hour hearing — Vos responded to questioning from Democratic State Sen. Kelda Roys of Madison by openly admitting that “partisanship was considered” as an intent of the maps. He essentially acknowledged that the maps were drawn to give Republicans a partisan advantage in the state legislature.
One way to accurately characterize this would be to say that these maps are “rigged.” That’s what Janet Protasiewicz did at the first candidate forum as part of the campaign for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“Let’s be clear here,” she said. “The maps are rigged. Absolutely positively rigged. They do not reflect the people in the state. They do not reflect accurate representation, either in the State Assembly or the State Senate. They are rigged, period. I don’t think it would sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair.”
She carefully and purposefully did not say how she would rule on a redistricting case, instead expressing this accurate characterization in a way that espouses her values about fairness in representation. Voters responded to this by giving her a victory by an enormous margin. And frankly, if you’re looking for a judge that simply calls balls and strikes without veering into overt partisanship, characterizing the maps as “rigged” is exactly that. The maps are rigged, plain and simple.
A new lawsuit, filed one day after Protasiewicz was seated on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, contends that this partisan gerrymander violates the state constitution.
“For 12 years,” said Jeff Mandell, partner at Stafford Rosenbaum and board president of Law Forward, the group filing the suit, “the people of Wisconsin have been living under this extreme partisan gerrymander, and every day that the gerrymander continues to distort politics and policy in the state of Wisconsin is an affront to our Constitution, an affront to our democracy, and a violation of the rights of the people of Wisconsin.”
While many redistricting cases have made their way through the courts over the years, this is the first to challenge the maps as violating the state constitution. The reason for doing this is because the last round of redistricting challenges went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which directed challenges to partisan gerrymanders to occur in this manner in state courts, not federal courts.
“Chief Justice Roberts specifically invited parties in extremely gerrymandered states like Wisconsin to take these cases to their state supreme courts,” Mandell told me in an interview on WTMJ Nights in July, before the case was officially filed. "No one has ever asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider whether a partisan gerrymander violates our state constitution, so that is one case we should expect our new state Supreme Court to take up."
LISTEN: Looking ahead to 2024, the coming shift on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Bucks In Six Forever
Vos and Wisconsin Republicans are asking Protasiewicz to recuse herself in this case, but she shouldn’t have to. For one, this is a brand new case looking to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering in a brand new way.
Secondly, it’s not like she was the first candidate to ever speak about her values during a campaign. This happens in any judicial election, where a candidate is on the record about a certain issue and then is questioned about those statements during the campaign, as these discussions inevitably turn to goals of impartiality and objectivity of a judge. As much as anything, this logic path raises questions about whether or not we should really be electing judges. But that’s a matter for another time.
So, never mind that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission rejecting several complaints about Protasiewicz’s campaign comments, never mind the hypocrisy of Republicans demanding Protasiewicz recuse over accepting campaign donations even as conservative justices haven’t done the same, never mind that a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2002 says judges expressing opinions while campaigning is protected under the First Amendment, or never mind even the simple fact that there is no charge of crimes or corruption that would constitute an impeachment attempt.
What’s happening now is that this impeachment threat is upending politics in Wisconsin, threatening to vault the state into a world of political turmoil and constitutional crisis.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has responded with a campaign of their own, "Defend Justice," a reportedly $4 million initiative to push back on these threats and hold GOP legislators accountable, showcasing where every last member of the Wisconsin State Legislature stands on the impeachment threat.
“Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’s threat to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz is a desperate, unconstitutional, unprecedented, and obscene power grab to erase the votes of over a million Wisconsinites and lock in the GOP’s gerrymandered maps, the near-total abortion ban, and the power to overturn the 2024 presidential election," said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
As that happens, Vos continues to march forward toward impeachment. There is a potential scenario for how this plays out that would be the Vos-iest move on the board. As Patrick Marley of the Washington Post detailed in a recent feature, what could happen is that the Assembly could vote to remove Protasiewicz with a simple majority vote, requiring her to halt any official duties. Then, the impeachment would move to the State Senate, where a two-thirds supermajority is required to convict and ultimately remove her as justice.
Due in no small part to gerrymandering, Republicans would have the votes to do this. They could do it with a few defectors in the Assembly, but would need every last vote in the Senate. But a source tells The Recombobulation Area that Republicans might not have consensus among all 22 state senators on this issue. Several GOP votes would be in question. All it would take is one Republican state senator to step forward and say they are opposed to this effort to put the brakes on impeachment talk.
But full-on impeachment might not be what’s in store. What could happen is that the Assembly votes to remove, but the Senate never takes action, effectively sidelining Protasiewicz from taking action on any of the cases she was elected to rule on, throwing the court into limbo.
The timing required to get new maps by the 2024 election is tight as it is, and any delay could jeopardize the ability to address this pressing constitutional issue in this timeframe. And liberal justice Ann Walsh-Bradley will be up for re-election in 2025.
Utilizing a State Senate threat of removal from office would be nothing new for Republicans, either. Since Tony Evers became governor, hundreds of his appointments went unaddressed for years, including cabinet appointments who served for years under the title “Secretary-designee.” They even effectively fired then-agriculture secretary Brad Pfaff by voting down his confirmation. They constantly threatened to fire the state’s health director during the pandemic using this same mechanism. A looming State Senate impeachment threat could have a similar effect.
But by taking these extreme measures, Vos is playing with electoral fire. The backlash that could come from an electorate that has seen their voices routinely ignored could be immense. And 2024 will be a big year for Republicans in Wisconsin with the state playing host to the RNC in Milwaukee. And if the redistricting suit does go forward in the way litigants are hoping for, that could mean every seat in both the Assembly and Senate will be on ballots for the 2024 election. This would serve up a simple issue for Democrats to run on in those races.
But this approach has cost Vos and state Republicans in statewide elections before, and they’ve yet to change course. Perhaps that’s because so much power has been consolidated within the state legislature that they’re still the ones controlling many of the levers of power in state government, even as they lose these statewide races. And these maps are their skeleton key to holding power no matter what and the Assembly Speaker will stop at nothing to keep them in place.
At this point, we should expect nothing different. You should always expect the worst, most cynically political and power-hungry decision from one Robin Vos, voices of voters be damned.
The election of Protasiewicz was supposed to be the first domino to fall to break this vicious cycle. But instead of looking in the mirror and changing course, Republicans are going to put up every obstacle they can before change can truly come to Wisconsin. At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised.
But this madness needs to stop. Taking this extreme measure of impeaching Janet Protasiewicz would rip this state apart.
Happening concurrently with this impeachment threat is an important debate over tax reform and an urgent, pressing conversation about child care, with federal funds set to expire and the Republican-controlled legislature having axed funding to extend the vital Child Care Counts program in a 2:30 a.m. vote during the state budget process, and a special session on this and other workforce-related challenges called by the governor for Sept. 20. There are real problems this state needs to confront, but instead, we’re wasting our time dealing with yet another of Robin Vos’ political power plays.
Living in Wisconsin with Vos running the legislature is like living in an apartment owned by a bad landlord who you can’t ever get rid of. Vos is a “terrible landlord” himself who has passed legislation benefiting landlords and undermining tenant rights, so perhaps this is a position he’s accustomed to. But in order to break this cycle of undermining elections, ignoring the voice and the votes of the people of this state, and putting Wisconsin in a permanent state of political turmoil, Vos is the one who needs to be served with an eviction. If he goes forward with this, it must be his undoing.
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Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Republican state representative Joel Kitchens was on the record as being against impeachment. His status is still undecided.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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