Justices clashed publicly over rules changes and firing top administrator, but new records highlight key conflict over how quickly court business should move.
By Jack Kelly
and Matthew DeFour
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On Friday, Aug. 4, within hours of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s new liberal majority voting to update rules cementing its control over court business, liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet shared the changes with all of the justices, but they included a typo. Conservative Chief Justice Annette Ziegler asked twice for a copy of the correct version.
Dallet’s law clerk wrote to the justices that the changes would not be released that day.
“So you refuse to give me what you passed today?” Ziegler replied by email.
Fifteen minutes later, Dallet’s clerk sent Ziegler the document she requested. A half hour later, Ziegler, through a court spokesperson, emailed to the press the documents and a public statement declaring “four rogue members of the court met in a secret, unscheduled, illegitimate closed meeting in an attempt to gut the Chief Justice’s constitutional authority as administrator of the court.”
Two days later, on Sunday morning, after Ziegler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was an “eternal optimist” and “would like to think that we will be able to work well together,” Dallet wrote to Ziegler that she was “also optimistic that we can work together on court business.” She suggested they and the other member of a newly created administrative committee, liberal Justice Jill Karofsky, meet on Tuesday.
Ziegler was having none of it.
“I am not willing to violate my oath or the constitution,” Ziegler replied more than nine hours later, looping in the court’s other six justices. “You know that this invented ‘committee’ is in violation of your oath, the constitution and longstanding practice. It is illegitimate and unenforceable.”
She concluded: “I will not participate in your sham experiment.”
So ended the chaotic first week of liberal control of the state Supreme Court, according to a trove of correspondence between the court’s justices obtained by Wisconsin Watch via open records requests.
The emails reveal previously unknown details of how the liberal majority rushed to exert its newfound influence and the conservatives, no longer in the majority for the first time since 2008, tried to slow things down. They also show how the power struggle — which comes as liberal groups race to topple the state’s Republican-gerrymandered legislative districts ahead of the 2024 election — had been underway for months.
During their first week in control, the liberals fired a top court official and hired his interim replacement; changed the court’s rules to shift power away from the chief justice to a three-judge, liberal majority committee; and altered the court’s operating procedures to give the majority power over key court functions, such as scheduling oral arguments.
The emails also suggest that the court’s liberal justices advanced significant personnel and rule changes after limited discussion with the full court and over strong objections from their conservative colleagues. Though the rules were adopted by a majority vote on Aug. 4, Justice Brian Hagedorn informed his colleagues he intended to write a dissent based on concerns that proper procedures were not followed, specifically a public hearing on the changes. Ziegler encouraged that the issue be discussed publicly at a previously scheduled Sept. 7 hearing.
Additional correspondence obtained by Wisconsin Watch from the secretary of state’s office further highlights the chaotic nature of the first week of liberal rule. State officials struggled to locate Justice Janet Protasiewicz’s oath of office — which she signed more than a week before taking office — even as she had started to weigh in on court matters.
The state Supreme Court emails and documents reviewed for this story were released separately to Wisconsin Watch by the court’s conservative members: Ziegler, Hagedorn and Justice Rebecca Bradley. The court’s liberal members, Dallet, Karofsky, Protasiewicz and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, did not release responsive records before publication.
Matthew Woleske, an aide to Dallet, said in an email that the justice “is actively working on a response” to Wisconsin Watch’s records request and the news organization “will receive a response as soon as practicable and without delay.”
Personnel changes sparked first public feud
On Monday, July 31, then-Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick received a phone call from Karofsky informing him he would be fired once Protasiewicz was sworn in and liberals took control of the court. His ouster was made official two days later in a letter from Walsh Bradley.
Koschnick’s dismissal outraged the court’s conservative members. In a Cap Times guest column Ziegler called it “flawed procedurally, legally and on its merits.”
The emails released to Wisconsin Watch show the liberal justices planned to fire him as early as June.
In an Aug. 1 email, Walsh Bradley wrote that at a June 23 conference Karofsky “announced an intention of ending the services of our current Director of State Court and implementing a new direction in court administration.”
The same email contained a draft letter on Supreme Court letterhead signed by Walsh Bradley to Koschnick informing him of his termination, as well as a draft letter to his interim replacement, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Audrey Skwierawski, offering her the job. Koschnick has since filed complaints with the Wisconsin Judicial Commission against the four liberal justices and Skwierawski, alleging Skwierawski can’t serve in the role until her term expires in 2025.
Walsh Bradley called for a vote by email with responses due by noon the next day.
“Political purges of court employees are beyond the pale,” Rebecca Bradley tweeted less than an hour after Walsh Bradley sent her email. “Four or five justices secretly voting on court matters without the court actually meeting breaches universal judicial norms. This abuse of power is unprecedented and illegitimate. It should be condemned by all judges.”
Ziegler wrote soon after in response to Walsh Bradley’s email that “any action taken on this is illegitimate.”
But the liberal justices forged ahead. Dallet seconded Walsh Bradley’s motions to fire Koschnick and hire Skwierawski, and all four liberal justices, throughout the course of the day on Aug. 1, voted in favor of both efforts.
The liberal justices have not publicly stated an explanation for why they fired Koschnick.
Meanwhile, the conservatives wrote blistering responses to the motion.
“I vote against the motions, both as a matter of substance and process,” Hagedorn wrote on Aug. 1. “The Director of State Courts is probably our most important hire. I understand that the intention to take this action was communicated at the end of the last term. But I believe process and transparency matter.”
Dallet wrote back defending the liberal justices’ actions, saying that in a May 19 email, Walsh Bradley had notified the court that “she would be reviewing our procedures in an effort to make the court more open and inclusive.”
That invoked a fiery response from Rebecca Bradley, who referenced the liberal justices’ concerns about the process used to hire Sam Christensen as clerk of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Christensen started in the role June 18.
In a May 18 email to Koschnick and the other justices, Karofsky expressed concerns about, among other things, moving forward with interviews for the clerk position because at that point, no justices had been involved in screening candidates, adding that “we need to hit the pause button on this process so that we can discuss the best way to proceed at this juncture.”
“The process being currently employed is inconsistent with the process we used last year when we hired (Wisconsin Supreme Court Commissioner) Tim Barber and I do not understand why that is,” Karofsky wrote. “The current process has not included a single justice or any employee from the Court of Appeals even though the Clerk works for both the Supreme Court and the COA. This seems unwise to me.”
Her concerns were echoed by Walsh Bradley, who on May 18 also called for a pause in the hiring process.
Early on May 19, Ziegler wrote back, writing that the process for hiring court personnel was consistent with previous hires.
Dallet also expressed concerns about being left out of the hiring process at that point. She wrote, “Process is important not just to making sure we hire the best person for the job but also so that we can all feel like the Clerk works for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals as a whole, not just a select few.”
Ziegler insisted that afternoon that the interviews would continue.
“Despite protestations to the contrary, I find the process flawed, the communications poor, and the necessary oversight by human resources lacking,” Walsh Bradley wrote in response, asking that the court schedule a conference date for the first week of August.
Rebecca Bradley intervened, asking: “What would be the topic for discussion?”
“I do not have a comprehensive list in mind at the moment,” Walsh Bradley wrote back. “But my overall concern is that our procedures be open and inclusive. I intend in the next month or so to review our procedures and to have a timely agenda for discussion.”
In her fiery Aug. 1 response, Bradley turned the liberal justices’ arguments about hiring court personnel back onto them:
• “Ann: have you abandoned your ‘overall concern’ ‘that our procedures be open and Inclusive’?”
This story was originally published by Wisconsin Watch at wisconsinwatch.org.