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Dane Co. judge dismisses lawsuit against State Rep. Vos over impeachment panel

by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
November 29, 2023

A Dane County judge dismissed a lawsuit that alleged Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and three former Supreme Court justices violated state open meetings laws when the justices advised Vos on the possibility of impeaching current Justice Janet Protasiewicz. 

Judge Frank Remington wrote in his ruling Tuesday that Vos and the panel had “plainly violated the open meetings law” but that the lawsuit had to be dismissed because it was filed prematurely by the open government advocacy organization American Oversight. 

The organization had initially filed a complaint with Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne about the potential violation. Remington wrote that once the complaint was filed with Ozanne, American Oversight had to wait for him to refuse to prosecute or wait 20 days before filing the lawsuit. 

Instead, the organization did neither, filing the lawsuit just five days after making the complaint, which is why Remington said he must dismiss the suit. 

A portion of the lawsuit over open records will continue. Earlier this month, Remington gave former Justice Patience Roggensack 30 days to comply with an open records request seeking documents related to the advice she gave Vos. 

This summer, Vos and other Republican lawmakers raised the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz over comments she made during her campaign last spring about the state’s legislative maps and campaign donations she received from the state Democratic party. 

The threats came just days after she was sworn into office because the Court was weighing two lawsuits that sought to have the state’s legislative maps — which heavily favor Republican candidates — thrown out for being unconstitutional. 

Vos and Republicans had initially suggested they’d move to impeach Protasiewicz if she voted to accept the case and didn’t recuse herself because of the campaign comments and support from Democrats. Protasiewicz didn’t recuse and the Court voted to accept one of the lawsuits — hearing oral arguments in the case last week. 

The case could threaten Republicans’ hold on legislative power which has lasted more than a decade. The suit raises  three issues: if “disconnected territories” in legislative districts are unconstitutional; if the Court violated the separation of powers when it instituted maps in 2022 that had been vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers; if the current maps are thrown out, how new maps should be chosen. 

The Court’s 4-3 liberal majority has signaled that it is likely to throw out the current maps. 

Secret advisory panel

As he was making his impeachment  threats, Vos announced he had convened a panel of former justices to advise him on the question of whether or not Protasiewicz’s actions rose to the level of impeachment. Vos initially refused to say who the justices were, but journalistic reporting and discovery in the lawsuit revealed that conservatives David Prosser, Jon Wilcox and Roggensack had provided him with advice. 

As part of the American Oversight lawsuit, Wilcox and Prosser released documents showing they advised Vos against impeaching Protasiewicz.

Even though Protasiewicz didn’t recuse herself from arguments on the maps which began last week, Vos has not fully dropped the threat of impeachment, saying it isn’t off the table after the Court rules in the case. 

American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer said in a statement that the lawsuit succeeded in its goal of gaining access to records related to the possible impeachment of Protasiewicz in real time. 

“American Oversight’s lawsuit was about getting the people of Wisconsin the facts and documents in real time — as Speaker Vos’ secret panel was meeting and advising him, not months or years later,” she said. “Our quick action achieved that goal, bringing to light important documents and information about the composition and recommendations of the panel — notably, the fact that former Justices Prosser and Wilcox advised against the impeachment of Justice Protasiewicz — that otherwise might have remained shrouded in darkness.”

Sawyer also said the organization is continuing to assess its appellate options.

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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