Wisconsin Republicans won a supermajority in the state senate on Tuesday, giving them the necessary votes to impeach statewide officials, including the state’s Democratic governor and potentially state supreme court justices.
Wisconsin Republicans now control 22 of the senate’s 33 seats after Dan Knodl, a Republican, narrowly defeated Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin in a special election to represent a district that includes Milwaukee’s northern suburbs. Republicans also control 64 of the state assembly’s 99 districts. The Wisconsin constitution authorizes the state assembly to impeach “all civil officers of this state for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanor” by a majority vote. A two-thirds majority is required in the senate for a conviction.
Republicans got their supermajority on the same night Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the state supreme court, giving liberals a majority on the bench when she is seated in August. The new liberal majority could strike down the state’s legislative districts, which were drawn by Republicans and give them a virtually impenetrable majority in the legislature. The court is also expected to strike down the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
It is not clear whether state lawmakers will move forward with impeachment. The assembly has only once before impeached an official – a judge in 1853 who was acquitted, according to the Associated Press. It’s also not clear who qualifies for impeachment, as the constitution does not define who is a “civil officer”.
Knodl, the Republican candidate who won on Tuesday, has said the legislature’s impeachment power would “certainly be tested” if he were elected. He has said he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz, who is currently a circuit court judge in Milwaukee, if she remained on the bench there. He did not say whether he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz as a supreme court justice, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Duey Stroebel, a Republican state senator, told the New York Times that impeaching Protasiewicz over rulings on abortion and electoral maps was not likely “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,” he told the Times. “If the rulings are contrary to what our state laws and constitution say, I think there could be an issue.”
“We can’t say what the legislature will do or how likely any action is. But for this gerrymandered legislature to take steps toward removing democratically elected officials would be a profound abuse of power,” said Dan Lenz, a lawyer for Law Forward, a progressive non-profit legal group.
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he thinks the legislature is ready to “play hardball”.
“Republicans, in their majority for the last 12 years, have not been shy about exploring what tools are available to them and trying to push them as far as possible,” he said.
Republicans in Pennsylvania and Ohio in recent years have toyed with the idea of impeaching judges over their rulings on gerrymandering. Talk in both states quickly fizzled.
One of the jurists threatened with impeachment, former Ohio Republican supreme court justice Maureen O’Connor, said she never really took impeachment talk seriously.
O’Connor was one of the jurists threatened with impeachment after voting with Democrats to strike down GOP-friendly gerrymandered maps. “It wasn’t going to go anywhere – political drama,” she said earlier this year.
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