A challenger in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election has cited a new Justice at Stake poll in assailing Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s refusal to remove herself from a case involving lawyers who contributed to her campaign.
Judge Randy Koschnick accused Abrahamson of being unethical by not recusing herself from a medical malpractice case that is to be heard March 5 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Lawyers in the case contributed $11,000 to Abrahamson’s election campaign this year against Koschnick, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s All Politics Blog.
Judge Koschnick discussed a study released on Feb. 23, 2009, by the group Justice at Stake under the title ‘Huge Majority Wants Firewall Between Judges, Election Backers.’ According to the study, 85 percent of those polled believe judges should step aside when parties spend big money to get that judge elected. The executive director of Justice at Stake, Bert Brandenburg, concluded that ‘Americans overwhelmingly believe that campaign cash has no place in the courtroom.’
“Justice Abrahamson has received over $30,000 from attorneys with cases currently pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This amount includes $11,500 from three attorneys handling a medical malpractice case set for argument in March. Justice Abrahamson has not returned these donations, and did not notify the parties in the cases so that recusal could be sought.
Abrahamson issued a strong response, stressing her commitment to keeping the Supreme Court fair, impartial and free from outside influences:
“Chief Justice Abrahamson offered clear, common sense leadership that Wisconsin families can put their faith in to keep dangerous criminals locked up, hold powerful out of state interests accountable, and keep the Supreme Court free from outside influence,” said Heather Colburn, campaign manager. ‘The chief is fair and independent. She takes the facts of the case as they are, applies the law and makes a decision, without a personal ideology or agenda. That’s what Wisconsin families expect, and that’s what the chief justice made clear today.’
Justice at Stake’s poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, focused on public attitudes about court cases involving major election campaign supporters. It tested for higher spending levels than those in this case. According to the poll, 68 percent doubted that a judge could be partial in cases involving those who spent $50,000 to elect them. That number rose to 73 percent in cases where a litigant had spent $1 million to elect the judge.
At either of those spending levels, about 85 percent of the public believed a judge should step aside from a case. A recent USA Today poll, conducted by Gallup, found that about 90 percent of Americans believe judgs should not handle case involving those who make contributions to their election campaigns.