A newspaper editorial board in Wisconsin’s largest city has urged a switch to gubernatorial appointment of state Supreme Court justices. The 2011 election shows “politics has overwhelmed the process of choosing … justices” by election, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial said.
In neighboring Minnesota, more newspaper editorial boards joined in calling for an end to judicial elections, following the hotly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race. The outcome of the race, which pitted challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg against Justice David Prosser, still was unresolved as official vote canvassing continued.
The Journal Sentinel editorial was entitled, “Appoint the justices.” It painted a sorry picture of the recent election, then urged consideration of a merit selection plan outlined by the Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System:
“Wisconsin was yet again witness to a bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred, big-money political mud fest that we’ve come to call a state Supreme Court election. And that’s just counting the campaigns waged on the candidates’ behalf from independent expenditure groups.
“There is a better way: appointed justices.
“Quite aside from the issue of independent groups whose backers are unknown and whose third-party efforts sully the process, there is the unseemly politicking the candidates themselves must do, even with public financing. What we are left with is at least the appearance of mere politicians in robes sitting on the bench.
“Clearly indicated is legislation that would tell voters who precisely fronted the millions spent by independent expenditure groups. More important, the recent campaign demonstrates the need for justices chosen by gubernatorial appointment.”
The editorial noted that the chief components of the system outlined by IAALS are a nominating commission, gubernatorial appointment, performance evaluations and retention elections.
In the Wisconsin State Journal, an editorial highlighted recent calls for judicial selection reform, including suggestions by former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske (see Gavel Grab). The editorial said, “Wisconsin has lost faith in its high court. And there’s little hope for improving Wisconsin’s ugly, money-soaked Supreme Court elections.” It called merit selection “the best way to ensure an impartial, experienced and highly-respected Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile an editorial in the Mankato (Minn.) Free Press castigated the “debacle” of the Wisconsin election, called for an end to the election of judges and discussed favorably an appointment-and-retention system.
“As the current nonpartisan election system becomes more partisan and tainted by special interest money, the need to reform the process becomes more urgent,” the editorial said.
An editorial in the Minnesota Daily was headlined, “Don’t elect judges,” and it reasoned:
“When the lines of partisanship are as clearly drawn as they were in this election, the winner will feel an obligation to defend the policies of the organizations that help win the election. Once elected, a judge will be pressured to make rulings with an eye toward re-election.”
An error in reporting initial votes in Waukesha County was disclosed last week and flipped the lead in unofficial counting from Kloppenburg to Justice Prosser, by more than 7,000 votes. The Waukesha County clerk has rejected calls to resign, the Journal Sentinel reported.