MADISON — An attorney for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos argued Friday that there is no “secret panel” advising the Rochester Republican on the potential impeachment of state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, as a liberal watchdog group argued any such discussions should be made public.
Vos attorney Matthew Fernholz characterized the situation as a legislator speaking with people who have expertise in a particular subject, similar to what might happen in the drafting of legislation.
“There is no panel that is necessarily formed or going to prepare a formal report at this point. It is merely Speaker Vos speaking to individuals,” Fernholz told Dane County District Judge Frank Remington during a hearing.
“The secret panel does not exist,” he said later.
The liberal watchdog group American Oversight filed a complaint last week with Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne alleging that a secret panel created by Vos to advise on impeachment is operating in violation of the state’s open meetings law. On Monday, the group sued the alleged panel for the same reason.
Remington on Friday rejected a request from American Oversight to temporarily halt the panel’s work because he said he does not currently have the authority to do so. Under state law, an individual is authorized to bring such a complaint to court if the district attorney does not act within 20 days. Ozanne said Friday that his office is still investigating the complaint.
Vos shared earlier this month that he was consulting with former state Supreme Court justices on the criteria for impeachment, which is an option he has said might be pursued by the Assembly if Protasiewicz does not recuse herself from redistricting cases before the state Supreme Court. Protasiewicz called the state’s electoral maps “rigged” during her campaign for the seat, which she won by 11 points in April.
Under Wisconsin law, a “civil officer” can be impeached for corrupt conduct in office or for committing a crime.
“I am asking a panel of former members of the state Supreme Court to review and advise what the criteria are for impeachment and to be able to go to the next step of this process,” Vos said in a Sept. 13 interview on WISN-AM.
Vos has not made public the names of the former justices who are advising him, telling reporters he doesn’t “want it to become some sort of circus.” He did confirm that former Justice Michael Gableman, who led a taxpayer-funded fruitless effort to review the 2020 election, is not on the panel.
It’s not the first time Vos has been involved in a dispute over the states open records and open meetings laws. In 2015, Vos proposed sweeping changes to the state’s public records laws that would have limited which records lawmakers are required to share with the public — an effort introduced during the state budget process and quickly abandoned after bipartisan public criticism.
Last year, two Dane County judges ruled that Vos had violated the open records law by not releasing documents related to the Gableman review.
Former Justice David Prosser confirmed earlier this month that he is advising Vos.
Prosser, during Friday’s hearing, said Vos has not asked the group to produce a report.
“When the speaker called and asked if I’d look into this and give some advice to him, the word panel never came up. It’s not in that definition. And certainly we were not ordered to do anything. I think it’s just unrealistic to say that that is a governmental body,” Prosser said.
Prosser also likened the situation to lawmakers or the governor seeking input from private citizens.
“I’ll just tell you, frankly, three people had lunch together. … and we had lunch together because we didn’t know what we’re really supposed to do. And I can tell you that if, if other people are going to have input, it’s going to be their input, not my input,” Prosser said. “I think this is an absolutely frivolous case.”
Asked who attended the lunch, Prosser declined to answer.
Another hearing is set for Oct. 19.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Vos’ attorney disputes ‘secret panel’ is advising on Protasiewicz