Wisconsin GOP supermajority already looking to impeach newly elected liberal Supreme Court judge

Even other Republicans decried using "impeachments to overturn elections"

Published April 6, 2023 12:35PM (EDT)

Judge Janet Protasiewicz speaks onstage during live taping of "Pod Save America," at the Barrymore Theater on March 18, 2023 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Jeff Schear/Getty Images for WisDems)
Judge Janet Protasiewicz speaks onstage during live taping of "Pod Save America," at the Barrymore Theater on March 18, 2023 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Jeff Schear/Getty Images for WisDems)

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, giving liberals control of the court for the first time in 15 years — but some Republican lawmakers are already eyeing a potential impeachment after winning a supermajority in the state Senate.

Wisconsin Republicans won in a separate race this week — the state Senate's 8th District — giving them a supermajority in the chamber. That means that the GOP will have the ability to pursue removal proceedings of certain elected officials if the Assembly votes to impeach them, NBC News reports. 

Republican Assemblyman Dan Knodl, who won the 8th district, said in the final days of his campaign that he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz from her position as a judge if he was elected. 

In an interview with WISN-TV last week, Knodl said that the GOP's supermajority in the state Senate would give them "more authority in the areas of oversight and accountability of elected officials and appointed officials."

"If there are some that are out there that are corrupt, that are failing at their tasks, then we have the opportunity to hold them accountable … up to impeachment," Knodl said. "Janet Protasiewicz is a Circuit Court judge right now in Milwaukee, and she has failed."

When asked if he would support her impeachment, Knodl replied, "I certainly would consider it." However, it is not clear whether he was only referring to her position on the Milwaukee Circuit Court, or if he would also consider impeaching her if she won the Supreme Court race.

Democrats are now concerned that Knodl's remarks are a precursor to Republicans trying to impeach statewide elected officials, like Protasiewicz, with their new Senate supermajority.

"There's going to be a supermajority in the state Senate that will allow the legislators in control of the state Senate to do what they were threatening back in November, which is to start impeachment proceedings," said Jodi Habush Sinykin, who lost to Knodl, in an interview with WISN-TV before the election.

Knodl is one of the 15 Wisconsin state lawmakers who tried to get former Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 election results. He narrowly won the election on Tuesday after the seat was left vacant by Republican incumbent Alberta Darling, who retired in November. 

His win gave Republicans a two-thirds majority in the Senate, giving them the ability to override vetoes from the governor, and convict and remove officials in impeachment trials.

The Wisconsin Constitution outlines that the state Assembly can impeach with a simple majority "all civil officers of this state for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors," and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has previously ruled that those officers include the governor, lieutenant governor and judges.

"A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Republican Party referred NBC News to recent comments from another GOP state senator who indicated that the Senate would not advance any prospective impeachment proceedings against Protasiewicz," the outlet reported. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Although the state Supreme Court should technically be nonpartisan, the race between Protasiewicz, a liberal, and Dan Kelly, her conservative opponent, became increasingly partisan. 

Protasiewicz made it clear throughout her campaign that her position, especially on abortion rights and gerrymandering, aligned with the Democratic Party. She was also endorsed by the Democratic abortion rights group Emily's List, Hillary Clinton, and former Attorney General Eric Holder. 

She won with 55.5 percent of the vote, the New York Times reported, and the election was the most expensive state judicial race in U.S. history. 

Protasiewicz's win is especially important because it gave liberals control of the Supreme Court just ahead of a challenge to Wisconsin's abortion law. Abortion is currently banned in the state due to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but a lawsuit challenging the issue is set to be heard in court next month, and will likely reach the Supreme Court. With Protasiewicz on the court, abortion rights are now expected to triumph. 

Knodl's idea to impeach Protasiewicz garnered support from Republican state Senator Duey Stroebel, who said the plan is unlikely to succeed but "certainly not impossible."

"If she truly acts in terms of ignoring our laws and applying her own personal beliefs, then maybe that's something people will talk about," Stroebel said last week. "If the rulings are contrary to what our state laws and Constitution say, I think there could be an issue."

Wisconsin lawmakers have only impeached one judge in 1853, and the state Senate didn't convict. Legal experts say the modern-day removal of a judge is highly unlikely due to minute details. 

Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WISN-TV on Wednesday that "we're not going to use impeachments to overturn elections or anything like that."

"To impeach someone they would need to do something very serious, so no, we are not looking to start the impeachment process as a regular occurring event in Wisconsin," he explained.

State law defines misconduct worthy of impeachment as "willful violation of a rule of the code of judicial ethics; willful or persistent failure to perform official duties; habitual intemperance, due to consumption of intoxicating beverages or use of dangerous drugs, which interferes with the proper performance of judicial duties; or conviction of a felony."

That means Republicans will have to wait to see how Protasiewicz rules on cases and if she shows any bias before trying to remove her, Daniel Suhr, a lawyer who previously served in Republican Gov. Scott Walker's administration, told Wisconsin Watch

"Rather than saying her entire campaign approach was flawed to the point of impeachable, I think an alternative approach is to say, on this particular case, this particular topic, you cannot be impartial, or you certainly cannot appear impartial, which is the standard that the law sets," Suhr explained.

"It's absurd to suggest that Protasiewicz has engaged in 'corrupt conduct in office' when she hasn't even taken office yet," Chad Oldfather, a Marquette University Law School professor, told Wisconsin Watch. 

"'Corrupt conduct,' especially in the era when the Wisconsin Constitution was adopted, was mostly understood to be about people using public office for personal gain — not policy or legal disagreements, but self-dealing," he said. "That's consistent with the longstanding American norm that judges are not to be impeached simply because the authority with impeachment power doesn't like the judges' decisions."

What if there were a dispute over the Legislature's handling of an impeachment? Then the Wisconsin Supreme Court would decide, as it has in other states, said Miriam Seifter, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School professor.

"An impeachment that immediately follows a free and fair election is not a sign of a healthy democracy," Miriam Seifter, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School professor, told the outlet. "Absent allegations of corruption or crime, impeaching a judge who just won a resounding electoral victory would show a troubling disregard for the will of the voters."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

MORE FROM Samaa Khullar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Dan Knodl Janet Protasiewicz Politics