Ethics complaints over WI Justice Protasiewicz’s campaign statements rejected

  • Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz on Tuesday released a letter from the state’s Judicial Commission, which informed her that “several” ethics complaints against her were dismissed.
  • The complaints pertained to statements made on the campaign trail during an unusually high-profile race, which wound up being the most expensive judicial election in American history.
  • Among Protasiewicz’s more controversial comments were those calling Wisconsin’s legislative maps “unfair” and “rigged,” which have led to calls for her recusal from redistricting-related cases.

A state judiciary disciplinary panel has rejected several complaints lodged against Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz that alleged she violated the judicial code of ethics for comments she made during the campaign. It’s a setback to Republicans who argued those remarks could warrant impeachment.

Protasiewicz on Tuesday released a letter from the Wisconsin Judicial Commission informing her that “several complaints” regarding comments she had made during the campaign had been dismissed without action.

The commission’s actions are private unless released by one of the parties involved. Protasiewicz received permission from the commission to release its May 31 letter to her, which she then provided to The Associated Press.

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Protasiewicz’s win in April flipped majority control of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court from conservative to liberal for the first time in 15 years. Democrats heavily backed her campaign, during which Protasiewicz criticized Republican-drawn electoral maps and spoke in favor of abortion rights.

In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have been floating the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz over her comments calling the legislative maps they drew “unfair” and “rigged.”

Protasiewicz never promised to rule one way or another on redistricting or abortion cases.

She took office in August, and in her first week, two lawsuits seeking to overturn the Republican-drawn legislative electoral maps were filed by Democratic-friendly groups. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether to hear the cases, and Protasiewicz has not responded to a motion from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she recuse herself from the cases.

Protasiewicz sent the commission’s order Tuesday to attorneys in the redistricting cases, ordering them to respond by Sept. 18 on how it affects the request that she recuse herself from the lawsuits.

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A lawsuit in a county court seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban was filed before Protasiewicz won election. That case is expected to eventually reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Wisconsin Republican Party in February released one complaint filed against Protasiewicz by Randall Cook, a Republican supporter. His complaint alleged that Protasiewicz had declared how she would rule on cases related to abortion and redistricting, in violation of provisions of the state judicial code.

“Wisconsin has never seen a Supreme Court Justice so brazenly declare how she would rule on a case before it ever came to the Court, and we had hoped the principles of equal justice would be seriously considered by the Judicial Commission, despite their liberal bias,” Wisconsin Republican Party Chairperson Brian Schimming said in a statement. “It was clearly asking too much.”

In the letter to Protasiewicz, Judicial Commission Executive Director Jeremiah Van Hecke referred to “several complaints” it had received and dismissed without action. The letter said the complaints pertained to comments she had made at a Jan. 9 candidate forum and several interviews in December and January.

The complaints also alleged that she had made false comments about her opponent, Republican-backed Dan Kelly, in two campaign ads and in social media posts, according to the commission’s letter.

Janet Protasiewicz

Janet Protasiewicz speaks after being sworn in as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, Aug. 1, 2023, in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

The commission did not give a reason for why it dismissed the complaints, but Van Hecke said that it had reviewed her comments, the judicial code of ethics, state Supreme Court rules, and relevant decisions by the state and U.S. supreme courts.

In one of the cases cited, a federal court in Wisconsin ruled there is a distinction between a candidate stating personal views during a campaign and making a pledge, promise or commitment to ruling in a certain way.

Protasiewicz declined to comment on the commission’s action.

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.

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Republican members of the state Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday and last month grilled judicial ethics commissioners up for reappointment about when justices and judges should recuse themselves from cases, especially if they call a case “rigged,” a clear allusion to Protasiewicz’s campaign remarks.

Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, allege Protasiewicz has prejudged redistricting cases pending before the Supreme Court because of comments she made during her campaign. They also say she can’t fairly hear the cases because she took nearly $10 million in campaign donations from the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which did not file the lawsuits but has long pushed for new maps.

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Vos said Protasiewicz must recuse herself from any Wisconsin redistricting case and the commission’s letter only “muddies the waters.”

“The Judicial Commission decided Justice Protasiewicz could not be sanctioned for what she said on the campaign trail,” Vos said in a statement. “The Commission did not address whether she can sit on a case after accepting $10 million in campaign funds from the Democrat Party — the interested party in the redistricting case. Nor did they address whether she may sit on a case having made commitments for how she would rule that are inconsistent with the obligation to be impartial.”

The legislative electoral maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 cemented the party’s majorities, which now stand at 65-34 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. It would take only 50 votes to impeach. It takes 22 votes to convict in the Senate, the exact number of seats Republicans hold.

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If the Assembly impeaches her, Protasiewicz would be barred from any duties as a justice until the Senate acted. That could effectively stop her from voting on redistricting without removing her from office and creating a vacancy that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would fill.


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