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Wisconsin's Most Shameful, Embarrassing Election

May. 9, 2017
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If all the decent people in Wisconsin who believe in honest, good government were asked to name the most shameful, embarrassing election in their state’s recent history, most of them would name that big one in November.

It was certainly humiliating for a once progressive state to vote for an openly bigoted, unqualified, unprincipled, charlatan president. But the dominance of presidential elections causes far too many people to ignore crucial elections closer to home.

Wisconsin’s biggest, most shameful recent embarrassment was a statewide election a month ago in which few people even bothered to vote. There was no reason since the only candidate was a brazenly corrupt state Supreme Court justice who ran unopposed.

It was the re-election of Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, an openly unethical member of the equally unethical five-justice right-wing majority that makes Wisconsin’s court one of the most corrupt in the nation.

That might seem like an extreme statement, but Ziegler proved it two weeks later. She voted once again with the majority against creating any ethical standards for the court requiring justices to recuse themselves from cases involving their own financial sponsors who contribute millions of dollars to elect them to the court.

Having an ethical state Supreme Court really shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats should want courts to have integrity and apply the law equally and honestly. Why do I hear snickering?

The statewide petition calling upon the state court to adopt clear ethical standards regarding conflicts of interest was certainly bipartisan. It came from 54 retired state judges, both Republicans and Democrats, including two former state Supreme Court justices Janine Geske and Louis Butler. Not only did the corrupt majority summarily dismiss the petition 5-2 without a public hearing, but Ziegler herself demonstrated her profound ignorance of both ethics and the law by declaring it would be unconstitutional for the court to set any ethical standards for itself.

“The petitioners here have asked us to do something that does not comport with the Constitution as I view it,” Ziegler said. That may accurately reflect Ziegler’s own twisted view of the Constitution, but the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on ethical conflicts that financially corrupt state courts established exactly the opposite.

In the 2009 West Virginia case of Caperton v. Massey, the Supreme Court ruled a state justice had to recuse himself from a case involving the chief executive of a coal company who contributed $3 million to that justice’s election.

‘Bias Demeans Reputation and Integrity of Court’

“The appearance of bias demeans the reputation and integrity of not just one jurist, but of the larger institution of which he or she is a part,” the court said. “Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law itself.”

Since that 2009 decision, several state courts around the country have strengthened their ethical standards. The corrupt majority on Wisconsin’s court—Ziegler, Michael Gableman, Pat Roggensack and then Justice David Prosser—did just the opposite. In 2010, they adopted an explicit rule declaring political contributions from any party to a case, no matter how enormous they might be, would not require Wisconsin justices to ethically recuse themselves.

That rule paid off big time for Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in 2015 when those four justices killed a statewide John Doe investigation into suspected illegal coordination of anonymous “dark money” from those lobbying organizations with Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.

Of course, buying decisions from the Wisconsin Supreme Court isn’t cheap. Those two groups contributed nearly $10 million to the campaigns of the four majority justices. Prosser is retired now. But Walker replaced him and the late Patrick Crooks with appointees Rebecca Bradley, since elected on her own, and Daniel Kelly, both former presidents of the Milwaukee chapter of the right-wing Federalist Society.

There is absolutely no requirement that politically conservative justices be corrupt. It’s just become a habit these days. Bradley and Kelly immediately created a new five-member majority opposed to the court following any ethical standards of recusing themselves from cases in which they have glaring conflicts of interest. You know, like receiving millions of dollars in campaign contributions from one side.

The most depressing part about Ziegler running unopposed in April was it seemed Wisconsin had given up on ever restoring judicial integrity to its Supreme Court. It’s encouraging that Madison attorney Tim Burns, who chairs the American Bar Association committee on impartial courts, has already announced his candidacy against the sleazy Gableman in 2018.

The only way to reverse the corrupt imbalance on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court—or the Republican majority in Congress dishonestly promising health care for all as it votes to destroy it—is one candidate at a time. That means fielding strong candidates and voting in every election, especially in lower-turnout, non-presidential years.


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