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GOP fight over supreme court and redistricting could weaken democracy in Wisconsin

State capital building in Madison, Wisconsin
Alex Prisacari
Stock Adobe
State capital building in Madison, Wisconsin

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have been threatening to impeach Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, although she hasn't yet heard a case. GOP leadership is pressuring the justice to recuse herself from a redistricting case that could decide the fate of Republican control of the Wisconsin Legislature.

"That discussion has come amidst some concern on the part of Republicans that the Supreme Court at the state level will strike down the redistricting maps that Republicans had put together for the next ten years ... And those redistricting maps are heavily tilted towards Republicans," says Paul Nolette, director of Marquette's Les Aspen Center for Government.

Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos has been threatening to lead the impeachment proceeding because he believes Justice Protasiewicz prejudged a case pertaining to Wisconsin's district maps through statements she made during the election, despite the fact the case wasn't filed until months after the election.

"Republicans realize that this could be the end of their lock in through gerrymandering in the assembly and the senate and they’re trying to think about any route possible in order to prevent that from happening."

Vos and other Republican leaders believe Justice Protasiewicz's statements on Wisconsin's district maps being "rigged" disqualify her from ruling on these maps. But the U.S. Supreme Court has previously affirmed the right of State Supreme Court justices to give their opinions on controversial issues during campaigns. Republican leaders have also tried to raise issues with the fact that a ruling in this case could benefit the Democratic Party, which donated to Protasiewicz's campaign. But in 2017, the then Republican-led Wisconsin Supreme Court quashed a proposed rule that would have required justices to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors, saying the rule would violate a justice's First Amendment rights.

"It seems like there's quite a lot of inconsistency here. Democrats certainly would call it hypocrisy, and it does look like with this impeachment inquiry that Republicans realize that this could be the end of their lock-in through gerrymandering in the assembly and the senate, and they're trying to think about any route possible in order to prevent that from happening," says Nolette.

The push to maintain gerrymandered maps by removing a duly elected justice is a direct threat to democracy and a way of circumventing Wisconsin voters' ability to choose their elected officials.

Now, Republicans in the Legislature have put forward a hastily written bill that would make an independent commission to create district maps, something Democrats have previously pushed forward. But Nolette says the bill still gives the Legislature much of the power over redistricting.

He explains, "The criticism of this is two-fold: One, that the process is still very legislator-driven, this is essentially a way for Republicans to maintain their control over the process. And two, the bigger context here being that Republicans are using unprecedented threats against the supreme court in order to get what they want."


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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