Published March 31, 2023 at 12:10 p.m. CDT.
By Steve Schuster
While all eyes are on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race, there is another race on the April 4 ballot in southeastern Wisconsin that will have a profound impact on all Wisconsinites.
Republican Rep. Dan Knodl and Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin are competing for Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District swing seat in a special election. Alberta Darling’s departure has created the open Senate seat.
The winner of that seat will determine whether Democrats or Republicans will control the Wisconsin Senate, and there is a lot at stake.
During an interview with right-leaning Wisconsin Right Now on Thursday night, Knodl said if he is wins the election he believes the Wisconsin Constitution would give Republicans the power to use the Senate as a trial court to “convict” and “impeach” Democrats throughout the state.
Knodl said if elected he would consider removal of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz through impeachment proceedings. The Republican controlled Legislature unsucessfully previously attempted to remove Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm from office.
“Wisconsin Constitution Article 7 … to complete an impeachment it starts in the House in this case the Assembly with a simple majority so that would be the moving body initially to bring forward impeachment proceedings and the Senate would act as the trial court but needs a 2/3 majority to convict or to actually impeach, so this seat I would be that … 22nd republican senator to have the 2/3 majority so that is … authority that comes to us only with those numbers in place,” Knodl said.
“Dan Knodl has made clear that his first order of business, if elected as the District’s next state senator, will be to use his position to launch impeachment proceedings against an unspecified number of local and state elected officials—essentially a politically-driven witch hunt. What this will surely do is throw Wisconsin into a state of legal chaos and even more partisan dysfunction. As I have heard from voters across the District, Knodl’s impeachment aspirations are the exact opposite of what Wisconsin citizens are seeking, which is legislators’ attention to the pressing concerns facing our state—women’s healthcare access, the need for tax relief, and the wellbeing and safety of our communities,” Habush Sinykin said during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal Friday.
“Anyone who believes in the democratic process should be concerned by this (Knodl’s impeachment plans),” Chisholm said.
During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Friday, Chisholm said, “You should certainly pause before you’re going to use an authority (to impeach) that hasn’t been used in nearly 170 years.”
Chishom was referring to the impeachment of Levi Hubbell in the 1850s who remained a circuit court judge, but was impeached and acquitted by the Wisconsin State Legislature on charges of corruption. He later became a U.S. Attorney.
Chisholm said impeachment of a circuit court judge should only be used in special cases and even if that occurred, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would tap the replacement.
Impeachment should be taken seriously and used only “for corrupt conduct or commission of a crime or misdemeanor,” Chisholm said.
Chisholm said that Knodl’s consideration of impeachment, “doesn’t conform with any understanding of how democracy should work.”
“This should concern everyone. (Knodl’s consideration of impeachment) is even worse when directed at a candidate for supreme court when she is a sitting circuit court judge,” Chisholm said.
“Then what would stop Evers from removing Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington County District Attorneys for solely political purposes? As soon as you start down this path, you are opening this can of worms up,” Chisholm added.
In response to Knodl’s comments, Protasiewicz’s campaign also issued a statement.
“Dan Kelly’s own supporters know voters are going to reject his extremism and corruption a second time. It’s not surprising that the same people supporting this absurd plan to overturn the will of the people stand with Dan Kelly, a partisan operative who advised on the plan to overturn Wisconsin’s election results in 2020 and who has welcomed an insurrectionist to the campaign trail with open arms,” said campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker.
An elected official serving in Congress, statewide office, judicial office or county office may be recalled for any reason. However, a local elected official may only be recalled for a reason related to his or her official responsibilities, according to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memorandum.
Impeachment requires both houses and is somewhat similar to the federal process. In Wisconsin the Assembly impeaches and the Senate has the trial. But should the Wisconsin Senate act as a trial court?
Kelly has repeatedly said the role of a jurist in a courtroom is not to make laws and is very separate and distinct from the role of a legislator who should only be drafting bills.
“I want to remind the people of Wisconsin these different institutions serve entirely different and distinct functions,” Kelly said during a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon March 14.
Others agreed that the Legislature should not be mixed up with the role of the courts.
“This is just another attempt by Wisconsin Republicans to restrict voting rights,” said Johns Hopkins University Political Science Professor Matthew Crenson during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Friday.
Crenson said, “The very idea that (Knodl) would have mass impeachments reflects what’s going on with the nation at-large, traditionally this has never happened and usually the supreme court should be above politics too.”
A spokesperson with Wisconsin Sen. Chris Larson’s office told the Wisconsin Law Journal during an interview Friday that Sen. Larson’s office has researched the consequences of Republican’s having a two-thirds majority control of the Senate.
“Each body of the Legislature has the ability to expel any of its members with a 2/3 majority vote. The Senate in particular currently has no rules governing how they arrive at the decision to expel, it’s a purely political process,” the spokesperson said.
Regarding Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, “I had called for (Chisholm’s) resignation many, many months ago, and he’s not going to resign, the voters have not felt enough pain yet to bounce him out of office,” Knodl said.
According to the Milwaukee County Elections Commission, Chisholm received 336,608 votes in the 2020 election. His opponent received only 8,092 votes.
Losing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michaels had called for the removal of Chisholm on day one of office, despite an overwhelming majority of voters showing their support for Chisholm as evidenced by the 2020 election results.
When Knodl was asked about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting that he would impeach Protasiewicz if she is elected to the Supreme Court, he said that’s false because he doesn’t know what Protasiewicz has done yet on the Supreme Court since she hasn’t been elected.
The results of that race won’t likely be announced until after the polls close at 8 p.m. on April 4.
“That’s moot,” Knodl said, noting that he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz as Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.
“I was referring to her current position as a Circuit Court judge, that she has been derelicting her duties and I think that impeachment could be considered,” Knodl said.
So why is Knodl even talking about impeaching Protasiewicz?
“You have a senate district gerrymandered to the hilt … and you have Dan (Knodl) behaving like a very nervous man,” Chisholm said.
Crenson called Knodl’s impeachment plan counterproductive for Republicans.
“(Knodl) may be digging himself a hole by taking such extreme positions and threatening office holders who are elected by Democrats.” Crenson said.
“This will trigger a much wider turnout by Democrats at the polls,” Crenson added.
Both Knodl and Habush Sinykin have very different backgrounds and different views on public policy matters.
Habush Sinykin graduated from Nicolet High School, attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate student and then earned her law degree from Harvard Law School. After receiving her law degree in 1992, she began her professional career by serving as a judicial clerk to a federal district court judge, followed by a decade of private practice, including advocacy work for cleaner drinking water.
Knodl graduated from Menomonee Falls East High School, but did not graduate from college. However, according to his website, he ran a successful ice cream and concessions food truck while in high school. Knodl was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2008 and made headlines for his efforts to delay, if not overturn, the 2020 presidential election. On Jan 5, 2021, Knodl and 14 other Republican Wisconsin lawmakers joined 74 other Republicans from other battleground states in a signed letter to then-Vice President Mike Pence asking him to delay certification of the 2020 United States presidential election. In the letter, they claimed “The 2020 election witnessed an unprecedented and admitted defiance of state law and procedural irregularities raising questions about the validity of hundreds of thousands of ballots.”
Regarding public policy matters, Knodl has made clear of his pro-life views are very different from his opponent.
“(Democrats) are good with abortion on demand until birth, partial-birth abortion,” Knodl said during the Wisconsin Right Now interview.
Habush Sinykin said that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“These types of partisan attacks will further destabilize us and put us in a less safe position,” Habush Sinkyin said.
“I have made perfectly clear that Wisconsin women and their families deserve better than an archaic law passed in 1849 governing women’s healthcare needs and freedoms. Like the vast majority of citizens in our state, including Governor Evers, I support the repeal of the 1849 criminal abortion ban and the enactment of a law in its place that restores the Roe v. Wade framework that has long protected and balanced the manifold concerns at issue,” Habush Sinykin added.
Regarding public safety, Wisconsin Right Now made allegations that Democrats only supportive of police before an election.
Habush Sinykin said that is also false.
“I reject Dan Knodl’s claim that Democrats only give lip service to safe communities and support for law enforcement. As a person and mother who has lived in the greater Milwaukee area for most of my life, personal safety has been, and will always be, a top priority for me and my family. What Knodl fails to own up to, and what his divisive political rhetoric cannot hide, is that he needs, quite literally, to put his money where his mouth is, and provide law enforcement with the funds and resources desperately needed to keep our communities safe. For too many years now, this Republican-controlled legislature has refused to provide local communities, particularly our police, fire and paramedic services, with the money they have been asking for—which, in effect, has done more to defund the police and compromise public safety than anything else,” Habush Sinykin said.
Knodl declined an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, as well as other non-partisan media outlets in Wisconsin.