Innovation for state courts in Wisconsin is stymied by a cut of $17.6 million in the biennial budget for the judiciary, an Appleton Post-Crescent article says.
“The court system is facing unprecedented cuts, and the level of court system budget reductions will continue to have consequences,” Director of State Courts A. John Voelker said. “Left unaddressed, the funding issues will begin to affect the court system’s ability to effectively serve the people of Wisconsin.”
Fewer national experts will be able to come to Wisconsin and address state jurists as one result of the cuts. As an example of the kind of innovation fostered through Office of Judicial Education programming, the article mentioned an initiative in Outagamie County to have commissioners set bond for criminal defendants based on evidence-based risk analysis rather than on a judge’s experience and instincts.
A potential conflict of interest may be ahead in a proceeding before several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, yet they have no obligation under existing law to recuse themselves, Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress writes in a ThinkProgress blog.
Corriher writes: “A criminal probe in Wisconsin targets several major spenders on state supreme court races. Yet the justices who benefited from that spending will likely get to decide whether this probe moves forward.” The secretive investigation focuses on GOP candidates in 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin recall elections and interest groups that backed them with spending.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth and Citizens for a Strong America are among targets of the investigation, according to the blog post. In 2011, they spent more than $1 million in support of incumbent Justice David Prosser who was seeking reelection, the post said, based on data from the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner organization.
A Forbes blog post picked up on the ThinkProgress report and declared in its headline about judicial elections, “The Second Worst Idea in American Politics.”
Special interest money is finding its way into Wisconsin judicial elections from sources that are trying to hide their real motives.
That was the topic of a meeting of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (WAJ), who gathered to discuss judicial reform.
According to an article in The Capital Times, the massive money is not coming from local law enforcement groups who might think a judge is too soft on crime or from civil liberties groups who may believe a judge doesn’t respect due process.
The article says that in Wisconsin, groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce are spending money to make it harder for plaintiffs to sue corporations, while using other issues to mobilize public sentiment against judicial candidates.
Money in judicial elections in Wisconsin comes from both sides of the aisle, and there are different ideas on what, if anything needs to change about the system.
Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist who has managed a number of conservative judicial campaigns, dismissed the argument that judicial campaigns have necessarily changed for the worse. Comparisons to judicial elections from decades ago are inappropriate, he told the newspaper.
WAJ president Chris Stombaugh said his group has not taken a position on a constitutional amendment the bar association proposed for reforming Supreme Court elections, where justices would be elected to a single 16 year term, and could not be reelected.
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, whose saga of being targeted by big special interest spending in a judicial election has captured widespread attention, was to address a Wisconsin audience on Monday. In the run-up to his speech, WUWM radio aired a report saying Wisconsin’s judicial elections are among the nation’s nastiest and citing Justice at Stake as its source.
The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report featured Wisconsin’s court elections as a case study, WUWM recounted, and the report “says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.”
“When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice,” former Justice Diaz says. His story has been told in a documentary and it inspired a novel by John Grisham.
The “New Politics” report was recently released by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices contacted state legislators earlier this year to signal support for a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Chief Justice is selected. Justice Patricia Roggensack, one of the two who voiced support, could benefit from the change.
The (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel reported the developments, saying it is permissible for justices to lobby the legislature “but doing so runs the risk of deepening an already yawning rift on the court.”
Wisconsin’s chief justice currently is Shirley Abrahamson. Democrats and Republicans have divided over the legislation. Democrats contend the action is aimed at removing Justice Abrahamson, who has held the post for 17 years. Republicans say it would be better to have the Supreme Court’s members choose the Chief Justice, rather than have the justice with the greatest seniority hold the top post, as is now the law. Read more
WTAQ has reported that the Wisconsin Senate committee has voted to change the way the State Supreme Court Chief Justice is elected. For the past 124 years the most senior justice has been chosen to serve as the chief justice. The Senate Judiciary panel voted 3-2 in favor of a constitutional amendment that they believe would make it easier for the philosophical majority of the court to be represented. The chief justice would be chosen every two years by his or her fellow justices.
The current make up of the court leans conservative. The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the issue in which the chief sponsor of the amendment denied any attempt at giving the conservative majority more influence, and that this amendment in no way is attempting to take away influence from the current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
The Wisconsin Assembly will vote on Thursday. If the amendment is to be successful it would have to pass the Assembly’s next session and then be subject to a statewide voter referendum.
A report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, about state Supreme Court justices receiving campaign donations from attorneys whose cases reach the high court, raises questions about public confidence in impartial justice. The report also cited a Justice at Stake survey.
The report appeared in the Capital Times and was headlined, “Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices tend to favor attorney donors.” It said these attorneys gave a total of $210,750 to current justices between 2002 and June 2013; 56 percent of the donations were received before the court ruled in the attorneys’ cases; and in these instances, justices “favored those attorneys’ clients 59 percent of the time.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was the top recipient of campaign support from these attorneys, at $188,650, the report said.
“Any research that shows a correlation between donations and a justice’s decision on a case is only going to create greater concern among members of the public,” warned Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Justice at Stake partner Read more
A single, 16-year term limit being discussed for Wisconsin Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab) helps advance serious discussion of judicial election reform, but in practice it would backfire monumentally, a Wausau Daily Herald editorial warned.
In reality a single-term system “would raise the stakes in each election,” the editorial maintained. “Each election would seem to be the one and only shot for partisans to change the makeup of the court. We would expect to see money and partisan accusations flow accordingly.”
The editorial board renewed a strong position in favor of merit-based selection for judges: “It’s a system that preserves various democratic checks on the process and also prevents rhetoric around justices from spiraling out of control.”
Wisconsin has seen significantly increasing special interest spending on Supreme Court elections in recent Read more
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has become famous nationally for its internal feuding, and elections to the court have become known for special interest spending. Now a Wisconsin State Bar panel is recommending a proposal to help restore public confidence in the court.
The panel has recommending restricting Supreme Court justices to a single, 16-year term, according to an Associated Press article.
“The campaigns have become so brutal,” said Joe Troy, a former circuit judge. His study resulted in the proposal. “The sitting justice is attacked and demeaned, and the challenger is attacked and demeaned. The public sees that and thinks we must not have very good justices.”
Under the proposal, Troy added, “The perception that they are there serving the people (with money) who put them there, or they are worried about the next election, that’s just not going to happen.”
A constitutional amendment would be required. Troy said he would ask the bar’s governing board to approve the proposal.
Wisconsin’s Assembly passed and sent to the state Senate a bill that would restrict the ability of circuit court judges to block state laws.
Last month, two critics of the measure said it has the effect of “putting citizens at risk of irreparable harm from constitutional violations” (see Gavel Grab). The critics are Matthew Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network. The Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters are JAS partner groups.
If the measure became law, an order by a circuit court could be appealed immediately, and if that were done inside 10 days, the lower court’s order would be stayed. This would apply when a circuit judge, ruling on a state law, restrained its enforcement or suspended the statute. Read more