New liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court majority moves to weaken conservative chief justice
Liberals who gained control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted to reduce powers of conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and make a series of other changes to how the court operates.
August 4, 2023
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Liberals who gained majority control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court this week voted Aug. 4 to reduce powers of the conservative chief justice and make a series of other changes to how the court operates, moves that the chief justice derided as an overreach by “rogue justices.”
It marked the second time in three days that Chief Justice Annette Ziegler accused her liberal colleagues of a “raw exercise of overreaching power.” Liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet said their moves were designed to make the court “more accessible and more accountable to the people of Wisconsin.”
The public airing of conflicts on the court set the stage for deep divisions in the battleground state on major cases that could determine the legality of abortions and voting rules, as well as legislative boundary lines.
Conservatives controlled the court for 15 years until Aug. 1. Liberals will have the majority for at least the next two years.
Under conservative control, the court upheld Republican-drawn legislative maps in 2011 that helped the GOP increase its majorities, affirmed a state law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, and declared absentee ballot drop boxes illegal.
Deep partisan divisions on the court aren’t new. Tensions were so high in 2011 as the court considered a case about collective bargaining rights that a liberal justice accused one of her conservative colleagues of trying to choke her.
On Aug. 4, liberal justices voted to make a wide array of changes to how the court operates, including reducing powers of the chief justice, making its administrative meetings open to the public and forming a committee to study when justices should recuse themselves from cases.
The court’s administrative conferences had been open since 1999 until conservatives closed them in 2012. Justices don’t discuss cases in public, but the meetings are used to talk about budgets, court policies and other issues.
Ziegler accused “four rogue members of the court” of meeting in a “secret, unscheduled, illegitimate closed meeting in an attempt to gut the Chief Justice’s constitutional authority as administrator of the court.” She said any such action is “illegitimate and unenforceable.”
Dallet responded to Ziegler with a statement accusing her of publicly litigating issues typically discussed privately, calling it “deeply inappropriate.” She also accused Ziegler of declining to agree to holding a meeting in August. Dallet said all justices were notified of the Aug. 4 meeting, but some which she did not name did not attend.
“There appears to be no interest in reaching compromise,” Dallet said.
Ziegler first made the accusation when the four justices voted to fire the state court director, Randy Koschnick. He was a judge for 18 years before he served six years overseeing Wisconsin’s court system. Koschnick ran for the state Supreme Court as a conservative in 2009 and lost.
Republican legislative leaders sent the court a letter on Aug. 4 saying the appointment of a Milwaukee County judge to serve as interim court director was unconstitutional. They argue that the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits Judge Audrey Skwierawski from holding any office besides judge during her term. The lawmakers demanded that her appointment be rescinded.
But if a lawsuit is brought over that, its final stop would be the state Supreme Court controlled by the very justices who fired Koschnick.
That fight, and others, expected to come before the court include:
Two lawsuits were filed as August started, asking the court to throw out Republican-drawn legislative maps, arguing they are an unconstitutional gerrymander. The court must first agree to take the case, which seems all but certain given the 4-3 liberal majority, and then rule on whether the current maps are constitutional. If it tosses them, the court will then have to determine a remedy, which could lead to the enactment of more Democratic-friendly maps before the 2024 election. Republicans have held a majority in the Legislature since 2011, the year they drew the maps that are in place now and were largely unchanged after the last round of redistricting.
Wisconsin clinics stopped performing abortions in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, citing an 1849 state law banning abortion. A lawsuit seeking to undo the state ban is in county circuit court and could get before the state Supreme Court later in 2023.
2024 voting rules
National Democrats filed a lawsuit in July trying to undo the court’s ruling disallowing absentee ballot drop boxes so they can be used in the 2024 presidential election. Other lawsuits could be forthcoming that target the state’s voting rules, including a voter ID requirement in place since 2011. A fight also looms over the state’s top elections administrator. The rules of elections are particularly critical in Wisconsin, a state where four of the past six presidential elections have been decided by less than a percentage point. The state Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s win in 2020, with a conservative swing justice siding with the then-minority liberal justices to reject Donald Trump’s arguments.
Anger among Republicans over longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson led to the Legislature putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2015 that gives justices on the court the ability to choose who serves as chief instead of going to the most tenured member. It passed, and the court’s conservative majority immediately ousted Abrahamson. She sued in federal court to retain her title, but lost. The constitution requires the chief justice to be elected to a two-year term. The current chief justice, Ziegler, was first elected in 2021 and then again for another two-year term that began in May. Liberals on Aug. 4 voted to give the chief justice’s powers to an administrative committee made up of two majority-appointed justices and the chief justice.
The fight over union rights defined Republican Scott Walker’s time as governor, fueling massive protests in 2011, a failed attempt to recall him from office in 2012 and his subsequent run for president in 2015. Democrats and unions sued numerous times to regain rights lost during Walker’s eight years in office. More challenges are expected.
Wisconsin governors have wide veto power, which has drawn bipartisan complaints and constitutional amendments to reduce the breadth of what they can do. But when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in June used his veto to enact a school funding increase for 400 years, Republicans promised to sue.
Democrats, including the current governor, have long opposed Wisconsin’s school choice program, which allows students to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers. Liberals have been talking about bringing lawsuits to scale back the program, which was the nation’s first when enacted in Milwaukee in 1990. It has since grown statewide.
Associated Press writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report.