Don’t let Wisconsin’s new supreme court minority steer the narrative

Conservative justices are selling nonsensical outrage, and journalists shouldn’t buy it.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Conservative justices are selling nonsensical outrage, and journalists shouldn’t buy it.

Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

On the second day of having a new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court (SCOWIS), that majority fired Randy Koschnick, who has been the director of the state court system since 2017. Maybe some people remember Koschnick from when he ran against Justice Shirley Abrahamson in 2009, but I doubt most Wisconsinites have thought much about him, or his job, since. 

But out came the spicy quotes, which some journalists just couldn’t resist putting in at the top, sometimes in the first paragraph, or even the headline. The first sign we weren’t going to get any nuanced or even honest statements from the conservative wing of the court was Justice Rebecca Bradley’s tweet calling her colleagues a “cabal of extreme leftists.” But in the absence of statements from the liberal justices, many outlets decided to run the story based on the firebombs Koschnick and the conservative justices were lobbing, without context or, really, critical thought.

(Bradley has a history of incendiary statements. Remember when she said the court “forsakes its duty” by not hearing Donald Trump’s bid to throw out Milwaukee and Dane Counties’ votes in the 2020 presidential election?)

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler’s two-page statement (two pages!) dropped bombs like “raw exercise of overreaching power” “shameful,” and “reckless conduct.” Her Friday, August 4 statement was even more incendiary, calling her duly-elected colleagues “four rogue members of the court.”

What she failed to mention was that her colleagues went “rogue” and held a meeting without their conservative colleagues because Ziegler refused to schedule one. Justice Rebecca Dallet released a statement shortly after Zielger’s saying the liberal justices had been asking Ziegler to schedule the meeting since May. 

“The majority of justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted today to advance a number of transparency and accountability measures,” Dallet wrote.

Speaking of transparency, Koschnick, the guy who got fired, got into some hot water during the pandemic because he advised judges to delete court hearings off of YouTube, even though the platform was the sole means of accessing those proceedings during lockdowns. 

Another one of Koschnick’s claims to fame was supposedly resolving a statewide court stenographer shortage. Many outlets covering his firing added that tidbit without acknowledging that a group of Milwaukee judges had highlighted problems with the remote recorders being used to fill in the gaps. Some had started recording without informing the judges and recorded conversations that a stenographer would know does not go on the court record. 

The liberal justices (I personally hate this framing, so if anyone’s got any better ideas, I’m all ears) nominated Milwaukee Judge Audrey Skwierawski to fill Koschnick’s position in the interim. Several outlets ran Koschnick’s statements speculating that his dismissal was political, but Skwierawski was appointed to her current judgeship by that raging liberal… Scott Walker. 

That didn’t stop Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) from butting in, arguing that Skwierawski’s nomination was “unconstitutional” because the state’s constitution reads “no … judge of any court of record shall hold any other office of public trust, except a judicial office, during the term for which elected.” But Skwierawski is taking a leave of absence from her judicial position, to fill in an (arguably judicial) position until the court can undergo the official process for filling the position.  

All of these contradictions and obfuscations have one goal—to convince voters that the liberal justices are out of control and trampling over the Constitution. Which is rich considering everything Republicans have done during the last decade they’ve been in power—gerrymandering, shutting down the Government Accountability Board when it started investigating Walker, writing laws that benefit the landlord-legislature, and taking a 10-month vacation during the pandemic. The only thing that stopped them from throwing out Dane and Milwaukee Counties’ votes to hand over the state to Trump was Justice Brian Hagedorn deciding he cared more about the rule of law than party. And he got a lot of flack for it. 

One line in the Wisconsin Examiner’s coverage of the past week’s court conflicts stood out: “The week of public fighting between the court’s two sides is a marked escalation of tensions on a body in which decisions are typically made behind closed doors and arguments are aired in the justices’ published decisions.” 

In other words, in a state where we severely lack transparency at several levels of government, the court is an especially black box. We see what they want us to see when they want us to see it. Particularly under those conditions, it is journalistic malpractice to just print whatever quotes come out of the box and assume readers will be able to know whether or not they are true; that’s stenography, not journalism. Journalism provides important context to help readers understand not just what they are saying, but why.

The conservatives on the court have lost power for the first time in over a decade, which could usher in a wave of losses, bit-by-bit, of the stranglehold they’ve had on this state. They’re acting like it’s the end of the world because for them, it feels that way. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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