Complaints about campaign comments by Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed

A state judiciary disciplinary panel has dismissed multiple complaints filed 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 for Republicans who argued those remarks could warrant impeachment.

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

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

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

In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have floated 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 the other in redistricting or abortion cases.

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

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

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

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

The complaints also alleged she made false comments about her opponent, Republican endorser Dan Kelly, in two campaign ads and social media posts, according to the committee's letter.

The commission did not give a reason why it dismissed the complaints, but Van Hecke said it had considered her comments, the judicial code of conduct, state Supreme Court rules and related rulings by the state and U.S. Supreme Courts.

In one of the cases cited, a federal court in Wisconsin ruled that there is a distinction between a candidate expressing personal views during a campaign and pledging, promising, or pledging to govern in a certain way.

Protasiewicz declined to comment on the commission's action.

The nine-judge panel is one of the few avenues through which people can challenge the actions of Supreme Court justices. It is charged with investigating judges and judicial commissioners accused of violating the state's code of judicial ethics. Its members include two lawyers and two judges appointed by the Supreme Court and five non-lawyers appointed by the governor for three-year terms.

Republican members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and last month sought judicial ethics commissioners for reappointment over when judges and magistrates should recuse themselves from cases, especially if they call a case “rigged,” a clear allusion to the statements of Protasiewicz in the campaign.

Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, claim that Protasiewicz has prejudiced the redistricting of cases pending before the Supreme Court because of comments she made during her campaign. They also say he can't hear the cases fairly because he 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.

Legislative redistricting maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 solidified the party's majorities, which now stand at 65-34 in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. Only 50 votes would be needed for impeachment. It takes 22 votes to convict in the Senate, the exact number of seats Republicans hold.

If the Assembly impeaches her, Protasiewicz will be barred from any duties as a judge until the Senate acts. That could effectively prevent her from voting on redistricting without removing her from office and creating a vacancy to be filled by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.