MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The conservative chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court accused his liberal colleagues of a “crude exercise of overwhelming power” after they bowed their new majority on Wednesday and fired the director of the state judiciary.
The four liberal justices voted on just their second day as a majority on the court after 15 years under conservative control to fire Randy Koschnick. Koschnick held the job for six years after serving 18 years as a judge and running unsuccessfully as a conservative in 2009 against then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal.
“To say I’m disappointed with my colleagues is an understatement,” Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, now a member of the three-judge conservative minority, said in a lengthy statement after Koschnick was fired.
Ziegler said the move undermined her authority as chief justice. She called it unauthorized, procedurally and legally flawed and reckless. But she said she would not try to stop it for fear other court employees could be fired in the same way.
“The unprecedentedly dangerous behavior of my colleagues is the raw exercise of overwhelming power,” she said. “It is shameful. I fear this is only the beginning.”
Fellow Conservative judge Rebecca Bradley blasted the move in a social media post, saying: “Political purges of court staff are beyond the pale.”
Koschnick called the move “apparently political.”
“I think it bodes ill for court decision-making going forward,” he said.
The court announced Wednesday night that Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Audrey Skwierawski will serve as interim director of state courts beginning Thursday. Skwierawski will take a leave of absence from her position on the circuit court, where she has served since her appointment by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018, it said.
The justices who voted to fire Koschnick did not respond to a request for comment left with a court spokesman.
Ziegler noted that when conservatives took control of the court in 2008, they did not act to fire the director of state courts at the time, John Voelker. He remained in the position for six more years before resigning.
Ziegler praised Koschnick for his 18 years as a judge and his efforts as director of the state court system, a job that includes hiring court staff and maintaining the statewide computer system for courts. She also applauded him for addressing the mental health needs of people in the justice system, addressing a shortage of court reporters and keeping the courts operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Koschnick said he could have accepted his firing — and ensured a smoother transition with his successor — if the justices had waited to do so until a scheduled administrative meeting next month. Instead, he said, court workers are boxing his personal belongings while he is in New York for a court conference.
“It creates a really unstable workplace,” he said.