The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s adoption of rules permitting judges to consider cases involving their campaign donors took the side of business interests and could have national impact.
The potential widespread importance stems from the fact Wisconsin was one of the first states to weigh new rules for judicial recusal since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in Caperton v. Massey, according to an article by the Associated Press.
In June, the nation’s highest court ruled in Caperton that a West Virginia justice could not hear a case involving a coal executive who had spent $3 million to help elect him.
A Wisconsin dissenter, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley (photo on left), contended yesterday’s vote confirmed the status quo. “We are just passing the very law that already exists,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted her as saying. “It seems to me what I’m hearing is if we say it’s OK again that’s going to take care of the problem, and it’s not going to take care of the problem.”
Justice Michael Gableman (photo on right), who voted with the majority, said change was needed because it “memorializes the First Amendment Rights of the people to express their political views.” He has recently been asked to step aside in several criminal cases because of statements he made about crime issues during his 2008 campaign.
Wisconsin’s court turned down proposals to require judges to step aside from a case if they got big campaign donations from parties involved, or their lawyers, that exceeded a threshold, such as $1,000 or $10,000. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin made the first proposal, and former Justice William Bablitch the second.
Instead, the court voted 4-3 to approve rules that no amount of campaign contributions or third-party support to help judges win election could alone require a judge to step aside from hearing a case.
The latter proposals were made by influential state business groups, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, respectively.
A drive for reform came after Wisconsin’s 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court elections. Justices Gableman and Annette Ziegler won those elections, which were marked by heavy spending by outside groups. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimated that the manufacturers’ group spent $4 million to help those two candidates combined.
You can learn more about these topics from earlier Gavel Grab stories: Wisconsin recusal rules, the Caperton case, or controversy around Justice Gableman. You can read about Wisconsin’s 2007 and 2008 elections in a Justice at Stake Report, New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.