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.
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.
“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 Janet 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 three-year term as chief justice in May.
On Monday, Ziegler sent Skwierawski 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 did not respond to a request for comment via email.
Ziegler also did not respond to an email asking her if she was going to rescind the orders assigning reserve judges to hear cases, or sign them herself so the judges could remain on the cases.
Ziegler also 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 “invented committee” created by the liberal justices.
“I am not willing to violate my oath or the constitution,” she wrote. “You know that this invented ‘committee’ is in violation of your oath, the constitution and longstanding court practice. It is illegitimate and unenforceable.”
A request for comment from the four-justice liberal majority, left with Supreme Court spokesperson Tom Sheehan, was not returned.
Ziegler also repeated her claim, made when Skwierawski was hired, that the meeting to fire her predecessor was illegal and that she cannot hold the position because she is an elected Milwaukee County circuit judge. Skwierawski is on a leave of absence to take the court director job.
“Judge Skwieraski has not stopped being a circuit court judge and there is absolutely no provision that allows her to take a leave (not resign) and be paid more money for a different position,” Ziegler wrote. “She cannot serve two positions at once. Her purported appointment as interim director of state courts raises serious concerns about this being a public trust violation.”
Ziegler said she would advertise nationally for a new director of state courts.
She also said the committee created by the liberal justices is unconstitutional.
“Again, I will not condone such lawless destruction of the constitution, the judiciary, or the court,” Ziegler wrote. “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.”
Scott Bauer, The Associated Press