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High Court Harlots

Nov. 4, 2009
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Corruption on the Wisconsin Supreme Court took a brazen leap forward last week when a majority of the justices officially went on record in favor of accepting millions of dollars in bribes.

That is a slight oversimplification of the court’s action—but very slight.

Consider this: Four of the seven justices approved a rule allowing them to accept millions in campaign contributions from special interests without being required to remove themselves from cases before the court involving those contributors.

Even more shameless, the rule the justices approved was actually written by two of the richest business lobbies in the state that make enormous contributions to Supreme Court races: Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

The business groups wanted assurance that the Supreme Court justices they buy stay bought. It doesn’t do any good to buy Supreme Court races if the justices you put on the court have to recuse themselves from your cases just because they have blatant conflicts of interest.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the two justices on the court who have been charged with corruption voted with the majority.

Justice Annette Ziegler was reprimanded by her colleagues on the Supreme Court for failing to recuse herself from cases as a circuit judge involving a bank where her husband was on the board of directors, a bank that also had loaned her and her husband $3 million.

The other ethically challenged justice, Michael Gableman, is currently facing charges by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission of lying about his opponent, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler Jr., in ads that falsely accused Butler of being involved in releasing a child molester who then assaulted another child.

In addition to their own unethical histories, Ziegler and Gableman also received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the WMC, which wrote the rule allowing justices to receive millions from the WMC and still rule on cases involving the WMC.

Within months of her election, Ziegler paid enormous dividends to the WMC by writing a majority decision granting $265 million in tax refunds to state businesses in a case WMC had identified as one of its highest priorities.

No one expects Ziegler and Gableman to suddenly start acting ethically. But the two other justices who joined them—Justices David Prosser and Patience Roggensack—should be ashamed of themselves.

Because state Supreme Court justices serve 10-year terms, voters embarrassed by the current corruption of the court won’t have an opportunity to shift control of the court from the unprincipled Ziegler-Gableman majority until 2011, when Prosser’s term expires.

Buying Justice?

The state’s ethics code for judges previously stated that judges had to recuse themselves from cases if their impartiality could reasonably be questioned. The rule approved by the four justices last week inserts a contradictory amendment declaring that campaign contributions alone—no matter how enormous—aren’t enough to require a judge or justice to step aside.

The majority rejected a rule proposed by former Supreme Court Justice William Bablitch and the League of Women Voters that would have defined conflicts of interest resulting from campaign contributions. The rule would have required judges to recuse themselves if they received more than a certain dollar amount from one of the parties involved in a case.

By refusing to set any limits at all on the amount of money they can take from those who have cases before them, the court majority openly defied a decision earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision last June, the U.S. Supreme Court said judges must recuse themselves from participating in cases where one of the parties involved has spent huge amounts of money to get those judges elected.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the decision resulted from “extraordinary” circumstances in a West Virginia case where a corporate business owner spent $3 million to elect a court of appeals judge who then reversed a $50 million judgment against the businessman’s company.

Anyone familiar with the campaign contributions to elect Ziegler and Gableman to the Wisconsin court knows those circumstances aren’t particularly “extraordinary.” In Wisconsin, that’s business as usual.

Gableman snidely claimed the new rule simply rejected “this almost implicit assumption that I hear … that somehow candidates would somehow be tempted to make improper decisions based on something as low as $1,000.”

Gableman’s argument recalls the old joke about a guy approaching a woman on the street and asking if she’ll have sex with him for a million dollars.

The woman says she’ll have to think about it. So the guy says, “Well, then, how about five bucks?” The woman is highly insulted and exclaims, “What do you think I am?” He replies: “We both know what you are. We’re just quibbling about the price.”

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