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Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice accuses liberal majority of staging a 'coup'

The conservative chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court told the new liberal majority in an email that they had staged a “coup” and conducted an “illegal experiment."
Posted at 10:47 AM, Aug 30, 2023

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The conservative chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday told the new liberal majority in a scathing email that they had staged a “coup” and conducted an “illegal experiment” when they voted to weaken her powers and fire the director of state courts.

It was just over 3 weeks ago that Judge Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in as the 7th judge on the state's highest court. Within days, the liberal-leaning majority justices voted to shift power away from the Chief Justice - a conservative - and oust the current court director for another pick.

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, in two emails obtained by The Associated Press, said that firing and hiring a new state court director was illegal and ordered interim state court director Audrey Skwierawski to stop signing orders without her knowledge or approval.

Annette Ziegler
FILE - Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler listens to arguments at the Supreme Court in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 11, 2013. The conservative chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is accusing her liberal colleagues of a "raw exercise of overreaching power" after they flexed their new majority Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, and fired the director of the state's court system. On just their second day as a majority on the court after 15 years under conservative control, the four liberal justices voted to fire Randy Koschnick. (M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, Pool)

“You are making a mess of the judiciary, the court and the institution for years to come,” Ziegler wrote to her fellow justices and Skwierawski. “This must stop. ... I have no confidence in the recent hostile takeover and the chaotic effect it has had on the court, staff, and the overall stable functioning of the courts."

Liberals gained a 4-3 majority on Aug. 1 when Justice Protasiewicz began her 10-year term after winning election in April. Conservatives had held the majority for 15 years prior to that. The emails are the latest sign of broiling tensions on the court since liberals took control.

In their first week in power, the liberal justices voted to fire the state court director, hire Skwierawski and create a committee to do much of the work that the chief justice had done, a move that significantly weakened Ziegler. She was elected by the conservative majority to a second two-year term as chief justice in May.

Justice Rebecca Dallet, one of the four liberals, responded to Ziegler late Monday by saying she was “disappointed” that Ziegler was communicating through the media with a “deeply inappropriate, and at times partisan, tone and tenor.”

Dallet defended actions of the majority justices, saying everything they have done is constitutional.

“We are simply creating process so that a majority of the court can effectively work in the face of an intransigent and uncollegial chief who apparently insists on a public debate about issues for political purposes, rather than allow a court majority to function as it always has,” Dallet said.

On Monday, Ziegler sent Skwierawski, the court director, an email telling her to stop signing orders under her name.

“It has come to my attention that you have been signing my reserve judge orders without my knowledge or approval,” Ziegler wrote in the email. “You never asked me for permission. You do not have my permission. Stop. These orders are in my name. You have no lawful authority to sign them. If you have signed anything else under my name, please advise immediately.”

Skwierawski responded to Ziegler, in another email obtained by AP, saying she “vehemently” disagreed that her appointment was illegal. She also defended her action signing orders assigning reserve judges, saying state law clearly gives her that authority.

“I had the legal authority and responsibility as well as the moral obligation to sign the orders for reserve judges,” she told Ziegler.

Ziegler said in response to questions from AP that “in order to not create problems at the circuit court" she was reissuing the orders under her name. Ziegler said she was also sending a cover letter that she said Skwierawski would not allow staff to send.

Ziegler said she would advertise nationally for a new director of state courts, even as Dallet stood by the hiring of Skwierawski.

Ziegler sent a scathing email to all of the justices once again accusing liberals of acting illegally, causing harm to the court's internal operations and public perception. Ziegler refused to schedule weekly meetings with what she called the unconstitutional “invented committee” created by the liberal justices.

“Again, I will not condone such lawless destruction of the constitution, the judiciary, or the court,” Ziegler wrote. “This is nothing short of an unprecedented coup. For 40 years, the role of the Chief Justice has been understood and respected. Your short term goals will cause long term, irreparable damage to the judiciary. What a historical disgrace.”

Dallet responded by saying it was Ziegler, not the majority of justices, who was to blame.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Dallet said in her email to Ziegler, which Dallet forwarded to AP. “The attempt to obstruct the proper business of the court and the furtherance of justice comes from you.”

Chad Oldfather, a law professor at Marquette University Law School, says this rift amid the state's Supreme Court is not a new one.

"People who have been paying attention to the state Supreme Court for a while have understood that these tensions have been there," said Oldfather. "For it to get this bad, this publicly, this quickly is, I think, a surprise to everybody."