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Editorials: Wisconsin Court Under Cloud, Reform is Needed

Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Wisconsin.svgWith the Wisconsin Supreme Court beset by credibility problems arising from judicial election spending on justices’ behalf, two editorials say, it’s time to seriously consider switching to a better method for picking judges.

As Gavel Grab mentioned earlier, the high court has before it a decision whether to shut down a state campaign finance investigation, and four justices have benefitted from millions of dollars of campaign spending by several of the targeted groups. Some experts have said the justices should recuse themselves.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial said recusal is not the answer because recusals could “paralyze” the court. “The real answer to this court’s chronic credibility problem is to reduce the influence of deep-pocketed outside groups,” it said, noting both the editorial board’s past support for a merit selection system while signaling interest in a 16-year term limit proposal for Supreme Court justices advanced last year by a State Bar panel (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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JAS Says Judicial Elections Reap ‘Bitter Harvest’ in Wisconsin

JAS-LogoA controversy swirling around several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices is the “bitter harvest” of a big-spending system of judicial elections, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg warned in a statement on Friday.

There is debate in Wisconsin over state Supreme Court justices should hear a case involving a top spender on behalf of several of their campaigns (see Gavel Grab for background), and it illustrates the need for judicial selection reform, Brandenburg said.

“State Supreme Court justices should not have to find themselves in this position.  This is the bitter harvest of a system where wealthy interest groups are spending millions to capture the courts,” Brandenburg said.  “The controversy over whether Wisconsin’s justices can hear a case involving the Club for Growth, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of the campaigns of four current justices, goes to the heart of the current problems plaguing judicial elections. It’s time for states that use these systems to take a serious look at reforms that will minimize the influence of money and politics in judicial selection.” Read more

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Wisconsin Justices Face Questions About Conflict of Interest

Gavel_and_moneyCampaign spending by some groups targeted in a Wisconsin campaign finance investigation is now sparking questions as to whether four state Supreme Court justices ought to recuse from weighing whether state prosecutors can legally renew their probe.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the following:

“Among the groups mentioned in the investigation are three that have spent heavily in court races to elect four of the court’s seven justices. The Wisconsin Club for Growth is estimated to have spent $400,000 for Annette Ziegler in 2007; $507,000 for Michael Gableman in 2008; $520,000 for David Prosser in 2011; and $350,000 for Patience Roggensack in 2013.”

Another group, Citizens for a Strong America, was funded by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and spent about $985,000 in support of Justice Prosser; Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, funded in part by the Club for Growth, “spent an estimated $2.2 million for Ziegler; $1.8 million for Gableman; $1.1 million for Prosser; and $500,000 for Roggensack,” the newspaper said. Read more

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Opinion: Wisconsin High Court Tainted by Big Spending Campaigns

Gavel_and_moneyNumerous Wisconsin editorial boards have agreed that the state Supreme Court was correct when it upheld Gov. Scott Walker’s “Act 10,” enacted by the legislature to dismantle collective bargaining for most public workers.

In dissent, emeritus editor Dave Zweifel of the Capital Times has written a column suggesting that the court “can no longer be trusted,” as  ”a majority of the court is now in the hands of four justices who were given copious amounts of money by some of the nation’s most right-wing political operatives.” Zweifel sees a disturbing trend:

“And, no matter how above the fray these justices claim to be, they will always be suspect. That’s what our obsession with unlimited spending in election campaigns — either from the right or from the left — has wrought. It used to be that judicial races were spared this onslaught of special-interest money until those special interests discovered that controlling the courts could be just as helpful to them as controlling a governorship or a legislature.” Read more

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Limits on Collective Bargaining Upheld by Wisconsin Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling on Thursday, upheld Gov. Scott Walker’s “Act 10,” enacted by the legislature to dismantle collective bargaining for most public workers.

Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority, “No matter the limitations or ‘burdens’ a legislative enactment places on the collective bargaining process, collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation. The First Amendment cannot be used as a vehicle to expand the parameters of a benefit that it does not itself protect.”

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the opinion “found that collective bargaining over a contract with an employer is not a fundamental right for public employees under the constitution. Instead, it’s a benefit that lawmakers can extend or restrict as they see fit.”

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Campaign Giving Limit On Way Out in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s limit of $10,000 for the aggregate sum a donor can give to all political candidates in a year appears destined for history as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (see Gavel Grab).

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that state election officials said in federal court proceedings they could no longer enforce the limit. Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Justice at Stake partner organization, said the decision is “going to vastly increase the power of a few hundred donors.”

In another state development tied to campaign finance laws,  the California legislature finished its approval of legislation that the Los Angeles Times said “would force nonprofit groups and others to disclose the true source of large contributions to California campaigns.”

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Union donations and judicial recusal in Wisconsin

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court prepares to rule on a challenge to the state’s “Act 10,” which seeks to dismantle collective bargaining for most public workers, academics and interest groups are debating whether any of the justices should have to recuse themselves because they received campaign donations from public sector unions.

The Act, passed in 2011, was challenged by unions, who argue that its labor restrictions violated the state constitution.  A Circuit Court judge agreed in 2012, and the case is now under consideration by the Supreme Court.

Wisconsin’s rules requires judges to bow out of certain cases where their impartiality can be questioned.  The Journal Sentinel reported on calls for recusal, along with the opinions of some legal scholars who stated that the donations in question were so small in relation to overall campaign spending that they may not require recusal.

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Expert Opinion Divided on Possible Recusal by Wisconsin Judges

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinChallenges to a campaign finance investigation in Wisconsin are continuing to spur questions as to whether certain state Supreme Court justices ought to recuse themselves, and one of the state’s leading newspapers now has reported on the issue.

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter Patrick Marley has written a news article headlined, “John Doe probe raises issues of potential conflicts with justices.” Marley interviewed legal ethics experts and found divided opinion as to whether one or more of the court’s four conservative justices ought to step aside.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth is one of the targets of the investigation, which is looking at possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns (see Gavel Grab). In recent years the group has spent about $1.8 million in support of election of the four conservative justices. Read more

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Editorial Urges Appointment of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices

sealIn Wisconsin, site of an ongoing investigation of possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns, the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker has asked the state Supreme Court to bypass lower courts and intervene in the investigation.

Now an editorial in the Beloit Daily News suggests a specter of a potential conflict of interest is raised by this latest development, because conservative justices on the high court “have received support totaling several million dollars from some of the groups apparently involved” in the “John Doe” investigation, as the probe is called.

Rather than hammer at the justices for them to recuse — which the editorial says is a decision for each of the jurists — it renews a call for a shift to the appointment of Supreme Court justices through a merit selection process, from the current election of these judges. It says the court should be an “honest referee”:

“No campaigns. No trolling for dollars. No questions about favors owed to donors. Read more

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Wisconsin Communities Join National Call to Overturn Citizens United

Numerous Wisconsin communities, including Gov. Scott Walker’s hometown and other Republican strongholds, have passed referendums opposing Citizens United.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch reports that 41 Wisconsin communities have called for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and related cases that opened the floodgates to unlimited election spending.

“It puts good people in both parties in a difficult situation. I always thought that businesses did not have a significant voice and that their voices should be heard in the public square,” retiring Republican State Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said during a recent public forum. “Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think businesses would buy the public square.”

Nationwide, 16 states and over 500 municipalities have passed resolutions urging Congress to amend the constitution to limit money’s influence over politics.

Wednesday’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling will allow more money into politics, enabling a small number of super-rich donors to give as much as $3.6 million to candidates and parties in a single election cycle.

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