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Wisconsin's Supreme Court must resolve issues with infighting ahead of crucial cases

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Four months after the Wisconsin Supreme Court election that gained national attention, Janet Protasiewicz has taken office, giving the court a slim liberal majority for the first time in 15 years. It's only been a couple of weeks, but so far, the session has been notably messy with public infighting between the liberal and conservative justices. And it's all playing out as the court prepares to take up cases on hot button issues. Maayan Silver of WUWM in Milwaukee joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So as we mentioned, the new liberal majority has only been in power for a short time. And already, there's been, I guess - how can we say this? - drama. Tell us about what's going on.

SILVER: Right. So the liberal majority really started reshaping the court administratively within days of taking control. They fired the director of state courts, who was appointed by conservatives. They limited the power of the conservative chief justice. They opened up administrative meetings to the public, and they set up a committee to establish recusal rules. That's when a judge sits out a case because of a conflict.

Liberal justices say they're just making things more transparent, but conservatives have really responded with bitterness. One conservative justice actually tweeted that there's a, quote, "cabal of extreme leftists" now running the court. The chief justice, Annette Ziegler, who's a conservative, called it a coup on conservative talk radio. Meanwhile, liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet issued a press release in response and said they've repeatedly asked the chief justice to join them in meetings, but she's refused. So keep in mind this is all playing out very publicly in press releases and comments to the media.

RASCOE: So what's the problem with the liberal justice making changes now that they have the majority? Is this just sour grapes, or do the conservative justices have grounds for their objections?

SILVER: So some observers say that, really, liberals aren't doing anything that conservatives wouldn't do if the tables were turned. The real problem here isn't all this back-and-forth. It's really the acrimony and partisanship on the court. I talked to Barry Burden about this. He's the director of the Elections Research Project at UW-Madison.

BARRY BURDEN: Public trust in the court and, you know, the willingness to accept its decisions is going to be lower and much more partisan in the reaction that we see. This is true of the U.S. Supreme Court, as well. In Wisconsin, I think we're likely to see a similar sort of polarization of public reactions play out.

SILVER: In the meantime, Burden says it'd just be good for the justices to get in a room face-to-face - maybe stop tweeting and issuing press releases. They really have a lot of important work to do.

RASCOE: A lot of important work to do - it seems like the court does have some really big cases to decide this term. Remind us what's coming up.

SILVER: Ayesha, there are big, big topics. We're talking redistricting, election laws, abortion - three of the most contested issues across the country that are going to be before the court soon. Redistricting's the one we're really watching because that has a tight deadline. The case would have to be decided by mid- next year for those new districts to be in place before the general election. That could have big implications for the balance of power in the state legislature, which has been controlled by conservatives for quite a while in Wisconsin. There's already two lawsuits filed within two weeks of the new court. There's also a lawsuit making its way through the system over Wisconsin's near-total abortion ban. And then, of course, election laws will be important because Wisconsin is such a narrow swing state. It's cliche to say that every vote counts, but here, we really mean it.

RASCOE: That's Maayan Silver in Milwaukee. Thank you so much for joining us.

SILVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.