Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel has ceased to serve as a law enforcement officer. He now acts as a partisan political operative, and his partisanship has so overwhelmed his judgment that his pronouncements can no longer be treated seriously by Wisconsinites who respect the rule of law.
As such, Schimel should resign his position and let a competent lawyer take charge.
Schimel’s high-profile clash with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers illustrated the crisis. In November, Schimel’s department notified the state Supreme Court that it would replace the Department of Public Instruction’s attorney in a case brought against Evers by a right-wing group that seeks to undermine the authority of the superintendent.
The lawsuit, which is similar to a case that the Supreme Court decided last year in favor of Evers, asks the high court to declare that Evers and department officials must seek the governor’s permission to craft administrative rules.
This new suit claims that a recently enacted law requires Evers to now do what the high court determined last year that he did not have to do. But the new law affronts the Wisconsin Constitution, which creates unique statewide elected positions to be administered by those who the voters choose.
Schimel should allow Evers and the DPI to defend their position and the basic premises of the Constitution. Instead, he is trying to thwart that defense by denying Evers adequate and sympathetic counsel.
The attorney general’s attempt to facilitate the governor’s power grab is a shocking example of the extent to which partisanship has clouded Schimel’s judgment.
But it is not the most shocking example.
In early December, the attorney general released a report on his investigation into the leak of documents collected during a John Doe probe into political wrongdoing by Gov. Scott Walker and his associates. The report was such a mess that, within days, Schimel was forced to begin correcting its inaccurate claims and accusations. Yet, for the most part, Schimel has continued to defend the report — claiming that complaints about the report are "not serious criticisms.”
Schimel is wrong. The complaints are serious. They reveal the extent to which his extreme partisanship has caused him to abandon basic legal standards.
The worst abuse that has so far been discovered in Schimel’s report involves wholly false speculation that a newspaper reporter’s wife might have provided information to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The reporter, Daniel Bice, is one of Wisconsin’s most well-regarded journalists. So it was startling that a footnote in Schimel’s initial report read: “Although DOJ did not announce its visit to the Supreme Court, and was otherwise inconspicuous, the visit was reported by the Journal Sentinel reporter Daniel Bice, whose wife works in the same office space. DOJ has undertaken no action to determine why a member of the court staff would have reported this visit.”
As the Journal Sentinel noted, “Sonya Bice had not worked for the Supreme Court for more than a year by the time of the visit from investigators. She never worked in the office space at 110 E. Main St. In addition, while Sonya Bice worked as a lawyer in the state Capitol for Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks, from 2008 until his death in 2015, she did not handle any matters related to the John Doe investigation. Similarly, Daniel Bice did not report on any matters before the Supreme Court during the years his wife worked for Crooks.”
Schimel got it wrong — so wrong that he eventually agreed to delete the smear. Even then, however, he got caught in a lie. The attorney general claimed: "Due to revelations from the Journal Sentinel about its sources, and their identity, which contradict DOJ’s other evidence that formed the basis of the footnote, DOJ has decided to remove the footnote and will notify the John Doe judge of the clarification."
As the Journal Sentinel noted, “the reasons Schimel gave for deleting the inaccurate information were as false as the footnote itself.” Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley wrote: "The Journal Sentinel did not identify sources, nor did the Justice Department ever have any 'other evidence' to support its false footnote."
Inaccuracies in Schimel’s report also drew specific criticism from Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson and from the overseers of the state Ethics Commission.
A seven-page letter from David Halbrooks, the Democrat who chairs the Ethics Commission, and Katie McCallum, the Republican who serves as the vice chair, explained: “The report contains omissions and inaccuracies regarding the involvement in the investigation by Ethics Commission staff.” Halbrooks and McCallum thoughtfully and respectfully detailed a number of significant concerns regarding those omissions and inaccuracies.
Rather than addressing concerns about mischaracterizations of the commission’s cooperation with the DOJ, its respect for security and custody of records protocols and a host of other issues, Schimel replied with a dismissive announcement: "The Wisconsin Department of Justice stands by the attorney general’s report.”
It is shocking that Schimel is standing by a report that has drawn so much legitimate criticism. It is even more shocking that Schimel has attacked critics of his shoddy work, rather than engage with them in order to address obvious problems contained in a report that is so flawed that it should be withdrawn.
Unfortunately, even if Schimel were to withdraw the report, he could not restore confidence in his ability to provide sound legal counsel for the state. The attorney general has repeatedly chosen partisanship over principle. He has made wild and unsubstantiated charges. He has created false impressions and refused to correct them.
Brad Schimel should no longer be allowed to occupy a position of public trust.
For the good of Wisconsin, out of respect for the constitution, and in order to restore the rule of law, Schimel should resign. If he refuses to do so, legislators have a duty to consider steps that might be taken to sanction him, and voters must prepare to remove Schimel in 2018.
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