A new bill in the Wisconsin Assembly is another attempt by Republican lawmakers to cast doubt on the legitimacy of courts that have ruled against them. Under AB 128, lawsuits involving the Wisconsin legislature would be randomly assigned to one of the state’s 69 circuit courts, rather than being litigated in the county designated by the plaintiff, as has been the rule since 2011 and would remain the rule for other cases against the state.
The bill is being pushed by lawmakers who claim that judges in Dane County, the home of the state capital, are biased against Republican legislators. These claims have followed rulings holding these legislators accountable under the law. In particular, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has repeatedly disparaged the rulings of judges in American Oversight’s lawsuits for records from the partisan investigation of the 2020 election headed by Michael Gableman, whom Vos himself had criticized and fired.
In response to AB 128, American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer issued the following statement:
“This bill is another effort by conservative lawmakers to undermine faith in our public institutions and find excuses for rulings that didn’t go in their favor. Wisconsin’s code of judicial conduct requires judges to act impartially. The suggestion that Dane County judges are ruling against Republican lawmakers based on political bias is simply absurd. Instead of crafting special rules for their cases, these lawmakers should just follow the law.”
In 2022, after Vos was held in contempt by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn for failing to turn over records from the review, he said, “It’s a liberal judge in Dane County trying to make us look bad.” He also ridiculed a recent decision by another judge who in March ordered Vos to pay American Oversight’s legal fees in one of our lawsuits.
In 2011, the state passed a law specifying that plaintiffs would choose the venue in lawsuits against the state. Before then, all lawsuits against the legislature were litigated in Dane County. AB 128 would change the rules only for cases involving the legislature and would require the clerk of the Wisconsin Supreme Court to randomly assign such lawsuits to one of Wisconsin’s circuit courts. All involved parties would then have to travel to the assigned jurisdiction, which could result in increased expenses for plaintiffs, lawyers, and Wisconsin taxpayers. The bill does not allow for any changes of venue at either party’s request once an assignment is made.
Notably, the bill only applies to cases involving the legislature, which could have a deterrent effect on people choosing to bring cases against the legislature. By contrast, lawsuits against the governor would still be tried in the venue designated by the plaintiff.