Impeachments and forced removals from office emerge as partisan weapons in the states

Oct 8, 2023, 4:23 AM

FILE - Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz attends her first hearing as a justice, S...

FILE - Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz attends her first hearing as a justice, Sept. 7, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Republican legislative leaders have threatened to impeach Protasiewicz, who won her seat by more than 10 points earlier this year in an election that flipped the Wisconsin Supreme Court to liberal control for the first time in 15 years. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

(AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans in Wisconsin are threatening to impeach a recently elected state Supreme Court justice and raised the possibility of doing the same to the state’s election director.

A Georgia Republican called for impeaching the Fulton County prosecutor who brought racketeering charges against former President Donald Trump. Republicans in the Pennsylvania House have already impeached the top prosecutor in Philadelphia.

None of the targets met the bar traditionally set for impeachment — credible allegations of committing a crime while in office. Their offense: staking out positions legislative Republicans didn’t like.

As Republicans in Congress begin their impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, the process is calling attention to the increasing use of impeachment in the states as a partisan political weapon rather than as a step of last resort for officeholders believed to have committed a serious offense.

It’s not just impeachment. Over the past two years, Republicans also have sought to pry Democrats and nonpartisan executives from office through recalls, legislative maneuvers and forced removals, even when no allegations of wrongdoing have surfaced.

To some, the moves appear anti-democratic — actions that could have major implications if they become routine and supplant the ballot box as the final arbiter of an election.

“If voters cannot go to the voting booth and cast their ballot without the fear of an election being vacated and their vote being rendered null and void, what’s the point of having elections in the first place?” said Melissa Agard, a Democrat who is the Senate minority leader in Wisconsin. “This is the fundamental promise of our nation.”

The political power moves have most recently been on display in her state and generated national attention. Republican legislative leaders there have threatened to impeach a liberal Supreme Court justice, Janet Protasiewicz, who won her seat by more than 10 percentage points this year in an election that flipped the Wisconsin court to liberal control for the first time in 15 years.

Republicans want her to withdraw from redistricting cases involving the state’s heavily gerrymandered political map, which has given the GOP outsize control of the Legislature in a state where Democrats have won most statewide executive offices. They cite her campaign statements and fundraising. even though other justices have acted similarly in the past without sanction.

“Since the founding of our state in 1848, no state Legislature has even introduced articles of impeachment in order to nullify a vote by the people of Wisconsin to gain partisan advantage,” the state’s Democratic Party chair, Ben Wikler, said last month. “It’s a thought that for most of our state’s history has been unthinkable.”

On Friday, the state’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the gerrymandered maps on a partisan 4-3 vote, with the new justice declining to step aside, thereby increasing the chances of an impeachment.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been the most outspoken in threatening impeachment, but has stopped just short of promising to take that action.

“Never once will you find me saying that if she didn’t recuse, we’re going to impeach. I never said that,” Vos said. “What I did say is that is wrong if she doesn’t. She needs to recuse herself if you predetermine an outcome.”

In Pennsylvania, Republicans already voted to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner over his progressive criminal justice policies when they controlled the state House in 2022, before it flipped to Democratic control. The impeachment trial is indefinitely stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate while Pennsylvania’s highest court considers legal challenges.

A panel of lower-court judges split on the legality of impeaching Krasner, who was reelected overwhelmingly in 2021, but issued a lead opinion casting doubt on the charges. It said they failed to meet the constitutional requirement that reserves impeachment for “misbehavior in office.” The state Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments in the case for late November.

After Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis brought charges against Trump and 18 others for trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, some state legislative and congressional Republicans called for the Legislature to impeach her. The idea was rejected quickly by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who referred to the threats as “political theater.”

A Republican lawmaker, state Sen. Colton Moore, was suspended from the GOP Senate Caucus because of his stance and public comments against his fellow Republicans who had followed Kemp’s lead. Their statement said Moore’s persistent attacks against them for not agreeing to the impeachment was “causing unnecessary tension and hostility.”

The recent impeachment and trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stands in contrast. Paxton, a Republican, had been indicted on securities fraud charges and was the subject of an FBI investigation when he was impeached last spring by the state House of Representatives, which is controlled by his fellow Republicans. The articles of impeachment included bribery and abuse of public trust. He was acquitted last month by the GOP-controlled Senate, where his wife serves.

Republicans have tried other ways in recent years to remove Democrats or nonpartisans from office even in the absence of any allegation of wrongdoing.

In Florida, two Democratic prosecutors have filed lawsuits challenging their removal by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying his actions were political and without merit. DeSantis has criticized them for being too lenient and addressed his actions during the the second Republican presidential debate.

“When I had two progressive prosecutors that weren’t following the law in Florida, I removed them from their posts, and the people of Florida are safer as a result of it,” he said, adding that if elected president he would have the Justice Department bring civil cases against other progressive prosecutors.

North Carolina Republicans recently passed legislation that, among other things, could allow them to replace the executive director of the state election board, a position the board hires. They’re upset with her over a legal settlement as voting began in 2020 that eased some rules for mailed ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what state law permitted.

Their supermajority status will allow them to override a veto by the state’s Democratic governor, who called the legislation a “serious threat to our democracy.”

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated a 2021 recall attempt staged by Republicans, who have not won a statewide office in years and based their campaign on the governor’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. No actual wrongdoing was alleged, and Newsom breezed to reelection the following year.

Michigan State University law school professor Brian Kalt described the failed recall as “just another example of polarization and the weaponization of constitutional law to solve political disputes.”

Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said impeachment and recall are intended for cases where there seems to be a clear abuse of power.

“It’s important to have these powers because sometimes you don’t want to wait for a bad actor’s term to end before they’re removed from power,” he said. “But I think what we’ve seen is a greater willingness to play political hardball and that these devices that are meant to stop abuse could potentially be themselves abused.”


Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writer Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.

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Impeachments and forced removals from office emerge as partisan weapons in the states