Dismissal of Ethics Complaints Against Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz Met with Controversy

by Joshua Brown
Wisconsin Judicial Commission


The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, a disciplinary panel overseeing the state’s judiciary, has formally dismissed multiple allegations against Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz. The allegations claimed that she breached the judicial code of ethics with her campaign comments. This decision comes as a significant defeat for Republican lawmakers who have contended that such comments could potentially merit impeachment proceedings.

On Tuesday, Justice Protasiewicz publicized a letter from the Commission stating that the grievances against her have been dismissed without any ensuing action. This information was made public as Protasiewicz had received authorization from the Commission to disclose its letter dated May 31, which she subsequently shared with The Big Big News.

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Justice Protasiewicz’s election in April transitioned the ideological control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court from a conservative to a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years. Throughout her campaign, heavily endorsed by Democrats, Protasiewicz criticized the electoral maps created by Republicans and voiced her support for abortion rights.

In the ensuing weeks, Republican legislators have been openly considering the option of impeaching Justice Protasiewicz, particularly for her statements which labeled the Republican-devised legislative maps as “unfair” and “rigged.” Protasiewicz, however, has never explicitly committed to any particular ruling on either redistricting or abortion cases.

After assuming office in August, two lawsuits aimed at invalidating the Republican-authored legislative electoral maps were filed by organizations aligned with Democratic interests. The state Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on whether to hear these cases, and Protasiewicz has refrained from responding to a request from the Republican-dominated Legislature seeking her recusal.

Protasiewicz recently forwarded the Commission’s decision to legal representatives involved in the redistricting cases, setting a deadline of September 18 for them to comment on how the Commission’s decision could impact the calls for her recusal.

Additionally, a separate lawsuit filed in a county court aiming to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban is currently pending. This case is expected to eventually escalate to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Republican Party publicized a complaint lodged against Protasiewicz by Randall Cook, a Republican advocate. Cook’s complaint alleged that Protasiewicz had prematurely disclosed how she would rule on issues of abortion and redistricting, thus violating the state’s judicial code.

In the Commission’s letter, Executive Director Jeremiah Van Hecke indicated that multiple complaints had been reviewed and dismissed. While no specific rationale was provided for the dismissal, the Commission cited its thorough review of Protasiewicz’s comments, the judicial code of ethics, and relevant case law from both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts.

Republican members of the state Senate judiciary committee recently questioned the ethics commissioners regarding the criteria for judicial recusal, especially in cases where a judge has labelled a case as “rigged,” which appears to be a direct reference to Protasiewicz’s campaign statements.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republicans contend that Justice Protasiewicz should recuse herself from pending redistricting cases because of her campaign comments and campaign funding from the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

In the political context, the legislative maps enacted by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 have secured Republican majorities, currently at 65-34 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. An impeachment would require 50 votes in the Assembly and a conviction would require 22 votes in the Senate, the exact number of seats currently held by Republicans.

If impeached by the Assembly, Protasiewicz would be prohibited from executing any judicial duties until the Senate takes further action. Such a move could effectively incapacitate her from ruling on redistricting issues without leading to her formal removal from the bench, leaving a vacancy that would be filled by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.

This article has been updated to correct an error regarding Brian Schimming’s title as the Wisconsin Republican Party chairperson.

Contributions to this report were made by Big Big News writer Todd Richmond.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wisconsin Judicial Commission

What is the main decision that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission has made?

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission has dismissed multiple ethics complaints lodged against Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz. These complaints alleged that she violated the judicial code of ethics during her campaign.

Who is Justice Janet Protasiewicz?

Justice Janet Protasiewicz is a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who assumed office in August. Her election transitioned the Court from a conservative to a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years.

Why are Republicans considering impeaching Justice Protasiewicz?

Republicans have been contemplating the impeachment of Justice Protasiewicz due to comments she made during her campaign. She criticized Republican-drawn electoral maps and spoke in favor of abortion rights, which led some to believe that she has pre-judged pending cases.

What is the significance of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission’s decision?

The decision to dismiss the complaints against Protasiewicz represents a setback for Republicans who were considering impeachment proceedings. The Commission’s action adds another layer to the ongoing political and legal conflicts in Wisconsin.

What lawsuits are currently pending that are relevant to Justice Protasiewicz?

Two lawsuits aim to overturn Republican-drawn legislative electoral maps, and a separate lawsuit seeks to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. The Supreme Court has yet to decide on hearing these cases.

How did Justice Protasiewicz respond to the Commission’s decision?

Justice Protasiewicz publicized the Commission’s letter after receiving authorization to do so. She has forwarded the Commission’s decision to legal representatives involved in the redistricting cases and set a deadline for them to comment on the impact of the decision on calls for her recusal.

What are the potential outcomes if Justice Protasiewicz is impeached?

If impeached by the Assembly, Justice Protasiewicz would be barred from executing any judicial duties until the Senate takes further action. This could essentially incapacitate her from ruling on redistricting issues without formally removing her from office.

What political impact does the judicial electoral map have?

The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 have maintained Republican majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. Any changes to these maps could have significant political repercussions.

Who comprises the Wisconsin Judicial Commission?

The nine-member Judicial Commission is responsible for investigating judges and court commissioners who are accused of violating the state’s judicial code of conduct. It includes two lawyers and two judges appointed by the Supreme Court, along with five non-lawyers appointed by the governor for three-year terms.

More about Wisconsin Judicial Commission

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Karen Fields September 6, 2023 - 8:34 am

Politics as usual, but it’s the Supreme Court we’re talking about. Should be above this kind of pettiness. Just rule on the law, people!

Sara Thompson September 6, 2023 - 12:19 pm

i can’t believe Protasiewicz is even being considered for impeachment. She never made any promises about how she’d rule. What’s the deal here?

Emily Ross September 6, 2023 - 12:40 pm

How is Protasiewicz’s criticizing electoral maps a basis for impeachment? Criticizing is what campaigns are for, for heaven’s sake!

William Brown September 6, 2023 - 6:49 pm

wait, she took nearly 10 mil from Democratic Party? Now, that’s something to talk about. Even if she didn’t promise anything, that money’s gotta influence you somehow.

Mike O'Connell September 6, 2023 - 9:25 pm

Well, talk about political maneuvering. Clearly, the Republicans are trying to find any reason to get her out of that seat. Seems desperate if you ask me.

Jake Williams September 7, 2023 - 12:08 am

So, the Judicial Commission’s just gonna ignore all those complaints huh? Interesting how that works out, isn’t it.

Robert Allen September 7, 2023 - 3:22 am

Judicial Commission didn’t even give a reason for dismissing the complaints. Makes you wonder what their actual thought process was. Pretty opaque if you ask me.


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