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JAS: Partisan ‘Payback’ in Change to Wisconsin Court Tradition


A push in Wisconsin’s legislature to change the traditional method of selecting the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice amounts to partisan “payback,” Justice at Stake said on Thursday.

JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg made the following statement after passage by both chambers of Wisconsin’s legislature, along party lines, of a proposed constitutional amendment:

“Changing how courts govern themselves ought to be done carefully and with broad support.  Instead, a group of partisan politicians is focused on scrapping a 125-year old tradition as payback to get at one justice chosen by the voters of Wisconsin.   People want courts to be above politics, not hostage to it.”

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Wisconsin Judge Criticizes Proposed Constitutional Amendment

Justice Walsh Bradley

Justice Walsh Bradley

A proposed constitutional amendment, to change the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice is selected, is advancing in the legislature. It drew public criticism from Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

The proposal would have a majority of the Wisconsin 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. It was approved by the legislature in 2013 and must get approval a second time, unamended, before it would be placed on the ballot. Legislative committees with jurisdiction have recently approved the measure.

“The constitution, in my mind, is a sacred document,” Justice Walsh Bradley said on a Sunday TV show. “This isn’t what constitutional amendments are for. They’re not for being used as a tool to settle political scores. If you don’t agree with the referee, the answer is not throwing out the rule book.” She labeled the move as one directed at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, according to The Capital Times. Read more

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Proposal for Judicial Retirement Age Sparks Wisconsin Debate

A Wisconsin state legislator says he intends to sponsor legislation that would require state judges to retire at age 75. The proposal has sparked controversy, with a critic now labeling it “authoritarian” and directed at removing Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson from the bench.

Rep. Dean Knudson, a Republican, said in December he would introduce the legislation, moving to implement a constitutional amendment approved by state voters 37 years ago, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The measure is not partisan, he insisted, adding, “It’s in our constitution. It’s not optional. It’s a requirement.”

Chief Justice Abrahamson is 81. James Rowen ripped the proposal in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel opinion blog, calling it “a Soviet-style revisionist law to unwind the results of key, non-partisan judicial elections – – to get rid of Shirley Abrahamson, a duly-elected Wisconsin Supreme Justice, who is also the court’s Chief Justice and most senior member.” Read more

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Wisconsin Supreme Court to Hear Cases in Campaign Finance Probe

Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Wisconsin.svgThe Wisconsin Supreme Court has voted 6-0 to take up three cases involved with a state campaign finance investigation, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth is one of the groups at the center of the investigation, which is looking at possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns. In recent years the Wisconsin Club for Growth has spent about $1.8 million in support of election of four conservative justices on the court, and some experts have called for them to recuse from hearing the cases, but there has not been unanimity of opinion (see Gavel Grab).

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, when spending by two other groups targeted in the investigation is added to the sum spent by Wisconsin Club for Growth, it climbs to $8 million in support of the four justice over seven years. Read more

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Does Proposed Bill Target Wisconsin Chief Justice Abrahamson?

5275cc7296b90.preview-620Is a planned mandatory judicial retirement age bill a stealth ploy to force 80-year-old Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to retire? A WKOW article explores that possibility.

There currently is no mandatory retirement age for Wisconsin judges, although the stage was set for such a measure when state voters adopted a constitutional amendment in 1977. It allows the legislature to set a judicial retirement age of no less than 70.

State Rep. Dean Knudson, a Republican, plans to introduce a measure setting a mandatory retirement age. He said he would prefer age 75 as the mandatory retirement age, although others might differ.

“This clearly appears directed at our Chief Justice, who obviously, they don’t agree with philosophically,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Democrat. Knudson, however, said the legislation is not directed at any individual.    Read more

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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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