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Wisconsin Republicans Retreat From Threats to Impeach Liberal Justice

U.S.Wisconsin Republicans Retreat From Threats to Impeach Liberal Justice

Wisconsin Republicans signaled on Thursday that they were retreating from their threats to impeach a recently seated liberal State Supreme Court justice, Janet Protasiewicz, before the newly left-leaning court could throw out the gerrymandered legislative maps that have cemented the G.O.P.’s hold on power in the state.

Robin Vos, the powerful Republican speaker of the State Assembly, said at a news conference in Madison that he would not seek to remove Justice Protasiewicz based on the argument he and fellow Republicans had been making for two months — that statements she made calling the maps “rigged” during her campaign for office this year compelled impeachment if she refused to recuse herself from a case challenging them.

Now, Mr. Vos said, the focus would be on what Justice Protasiewicz does “in office.” He said that if the court ruled against the Republican-drawn maps and other conservative causes, he would appeal its decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court. Impeachment, he said, remained “on the table” but was not something Republicans would pursue now.

“If they decide to inject their own political bias inside the process and not follow the law, we have the ability to go to the Supreme Court and we also have the ability to hold her accountable to the voters of Wisconsin,” Mr. Vos said.

His remarks came after nearly two months of drama about how Republicans would respond to the prospect that the State Supreme Court, now controlled by liberals for the first time in 15 years, will act as a check on conservative control of the state’s government. Mr. Vos had first floated the possibility of impeachment in August, and the potential move was embraced by other top Republicans in the state, including Senator Ron Johnson and former Gov. Scott Walker.

In response, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin began a $4 million campaign to pressure Republican lawmakers against impeaching and removing Justice Protasiewicz. Democratic officials and volunteers sought to force Republican legislators to reveal their position, though only one Assembly member, State Representative Scott Johnson of Jefferson, has said publicly that he opposes impeachment.

“The people of Wisconsin rose up in outrage and the G.O.P. backed down,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “This moment marks a new dawn of accountability and democracy in the Badger State.”

The crux of the Republican argument to impeach Justice Protasiewicz had been her campaign statements, made before she won a commanding victory in April, that the state’s legislative maps were “rigged.”

Mr. Vos had for weeks teased the idea of impeaching Justice Protasiewicz without making an explicit call for it. In August, he said the Assembly would “take a look at it.” Last week, he told The Associated Press that “it is wrong if she doesn’t” recuse herself from the maps case.

Last week, Justice Protasiewicz rejected Republicans’ arguments.

“If precedent does not warrant recusal, my oath binds me to participate,” she wrote in a decision to remain on the case.

In recent days, Mr. Vos had begun taking public steps to back away from the impeachment threat. His statement responding to Justice Protasiewicz’s decision to remain on the case did not mention impeachment, saying only, “The United States Supreme Court will have the last word here.”

On Tuesday, it emerged that a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice with whom Mr. Vos has been consulting — David Prosser, a conservative — had counseled him that impeachment was not warranted.

“There should be no effort to impeach Justice Protasiewicz on anything we know now,” Mr. Prosser wrote to Mr. Vos, according to emails released to The Associated Press. “It should not be considered unless the subject has committed a crime, or the subject has committed indisputable ‘corrupt conduct’ while ‘in office.’”

There was also little appetite for impeachment in the Wisconsin Senate, where Republicans hold a two-thirds majority and would need all of their members to vote to remove her. No Wisconsin judge or justice has been impeached since 1853, when a Milwaukee circuit court judge was impeached by the Assembly in a bribery scandal.

Though Democrats and Democratic-backed candidates have won 12 of the last 15 statewide elections dating to 2018, Republican-drawn legislative maps have given the G.O.P. two-thirds of seats in the State Senate and 64 of 99 seats in the Assembly. Republicans nearly captured enough seats last November to be able to override vetoes from Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who won a second term.

Republican mapmakers have so efficiently packed Democrats into as few districts as possible that when Joseph R. Biden Jr. won Wisconsin in 2020, he carried just 35 of the state’s 99 Assembly districts.

Justice Protasiewicz infuriated Republicans during her campaign by broadcasting her views on the maps and abortion. Because of a state law enacted in 1849, decades before women won the right to vote, abortion became illegal in Wisconsin last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. A case challenging the state abortion prohibition is likely to go before the Wisconsin Supreme Court next year.

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