Is a Majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Corrupt?
The state Supreme Court’s low ethical standards spur reform efforts
In the past
week, the court has passed permissive rules on campaign contributions—rules
that were written by the state’s biggest special interests—and deadlocked 3-3
on whether Justice Michael Gableman should be disciplined for running a
knowingly false and race-baiting ad in his 2008 campaign.
attorney and state Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), the Special Committee on
Judicial Discipline and Recusal will look into whether justices should opt out
of cases in which a major campaign contributor or supporter is involved, and
whether Supreme Court justices should discipline one of their own.
committee, not yet formally announced, will include members of the legal
profession, lawmakers of both parties and representatives from clean-government
organizations. It aims to meet in early August, hold public hearings, and
deliver recommendations by October, Hebl said.
like to take politics out of this and work toward solutions that are apolitical
and are in the best interests of our courts in the state, to make sure that the
public has faith in our judicial system,” Hebl said.
support from some members of the state Supreme Court. In a letter to the state
Legislature, Justice Patrick Crooks called for a legislative committee to study
judicial recusal. And Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, in a sharp critique of the
court’s lax ethical standards, wrote: “If this court is unwilling or unable to
keep its own house in order, perhaps it will require action by others to step
in and assist in maintaining the integrity of the court and preserving the
public trust and confidence that Wisconsin judges will be impartial.”
he’s open-minded about potential solutions for the court and is waiting to hear
from experts before offering recommendations.
“It may very
well be that there is no better solution than the one that we have now,” Hebl
Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), a former circuit court judge who has been
invited to join the committee, suggested drafting a constitutional amendment
that would change the way Supreme Court justices discipline fellow justices.
The current guidelines, found in the state Constitution, allow only justices to
reprimand, censure, remove or suspend fellow justices or judges.
that asking a justice to discipline a colleague on a collegial court may be
“I think we
have to create, probably through a constitutional amendment, a new body that
will discipline members of the Supreme Court who are accused of violating the
Judicial Code of Conduct,” Kessler said.
amendment is drafted, it would need to be passed by both houses of the state
Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by state voters
before it could be added to the Constitution.
Can Rule on Campaign Contributors’ Cases
court watchers so alarmed about ethical standards of justices?
In this term
alone, the state Supreme Court has:
- Publicly reprimanded Justice Annette Ziegler for deciding cases as a Washington County circuit court judge that involved West Bend Savings Bank without disclosing that her husband served on the board of the bank. It was the first public reprimand of a sitting Supreme Court justice in the history of the court.
- Split 3-3 on whether Justice Michael Gableman should be disciplined for personally approving and airing a false and race-baiting “Willie Horton”-style ad during his 2008 campaign.
Gableman were his conservative allies on the court: David Prosser, Pat
Roggensack and Ziegler. Opposing Gableman were Chief Justice Shirley
Abrahamson, Bradley and Crooks.
resolution by the court, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission has dropped the
case. In a statement announcing that it would suspend the matter, the
commission stated that it felt Gableman violated the state’s Judicial Code of
Conduct by airing a false ad: “There is simply no
justification for judges or candidates for judicial office to intentionally and
purposely misrepresent facts concerning an opponent in a judicial election
Gableman’s term expires in 2018.
- Passed new rules that would allow judges at all levels to rule on cases that involved a campaign contributor or an independent party that sponsored “issue ads” in the campaign. The rules were written by two conservative special-interest groups, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), and approved verbatim 4-3 by the Supreme Court.
Supporting the rule were Gableman, Ziegler, Roggensack and Prosser.In 2009, critics blasted the court for allowing Ziegler to rule on a case connected to WMC, the big business lobby that spent $2 million on ads attacking her campaign opponent. Ziegler ruled with Crooks, Prosser and Roggensack and gave a big tax break to the Menasha Corp., which was supported in the case by WMC. The ultimate cost to state taxpayers: an estimated $350 million in lost sales tax revenue from Menasha and other corporations.
Ziegler could have been asked to remove herself from the case by the opposing party—in this case, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, representing the state. But Van Hollen benefited from WMC’s $2.5 million worth of ads attacking his opponent in 2006 and he did not challenge Ziegler’s participation.
Under the new rules, however, Ziegler’s involvement in the case would not be prohibited.
- Passed a new rule that allows judges at all levels to accept campaign contributions from individuals and parties “even though the contributor may be involved in a proceeding in which the judge, candidate for judicial office, or judge-elect is likely to participate.” The rule was written by the Wisconsin Realtors Association and approved by the Supreme Court without study or revision.
the rule were Gableman, Ziegler, Roggensack and Prosser. Prosser’s term expires
in 2011, allowing him to be the first to benefit from the rule if he runs for
- Rejected proposed
rules suggested by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and retired Justice
William Bablitch that would require judges at all levels to recuse themselves
from cases in which a campaign contributor or a major independent supporter is
- Split 3-3 on whether Gableman should recuse
himself from at least eight criminal cases due to his campaign statements
indicating a bias against criminal defendants. Once again, Roggensack, Prosser
and Ziegler sided with Gableman. Lacking a majority, Gableman stayed put.
Majority of Wisconsinites Believe Cash Creates Bias
questions hanging over the current court can lead to an erosion of public trust
in the legal system, said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of
Women Voters of Wisconsin.
proposed one of the recusal rules—rejected by the court in favor of the WMC-written
rule—because of a study that showed that 78% of Wisconsinites believed that
campaign contributions are likely to bias a judge’s decision in a case.
lack of confidence in the system,” Kaminski said. “We’re concerned about the
perception of the court. People will feel that they can’t take a case to court
because they won’t get a fair trial.”
An attempt to remove the influence of big money from Supreme Court campaigns was made in the most recent legislative session. The new Impartial Justice law sets up an optional public finance system for Supreme Court candidates and also limits individual donations to Supreme Court candidates to $1,000 if they do not opt into the public system. But the law does not affect third-party expenditures, which can substantially skew a race toward or away from a judicial candidate.