Gavel Grab

Court Restores Some Partisan Limits on WI Judges

Wisconsin judges will be permitted less partisan activity, as a result of a federal appeals court’s ruling that rolled back part of a lower court decision from a year ago.

The judges may continue to join political parties. But they may not endorse partisan candidates for office or directly solicit campaign cash, a panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, according to articles by the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The panel’s ruling reinstated two of three rules that were thrown out last year by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb. She said thosee regulations for judicial candidates not only violated judges’ First Amendment rights but also did not significantly protect courts from political influence (see Gavel Grab post).

The panel’s ruling in Siefert v. Alexander, which is available here, instead draws a line between judges joining political parties and endorsing candidates:

“When judges are speaking as judges, and trading on the prestige of their office to advance other political ends, a state has an obligation to regulate their behavior. We thus see a dividing line between the party affiliation rule, which impermissibly bars protected speech about the judge’s own campaign, and the public endorsement rule, which addresses a judge’s entry into the political arena on behalf of his partisan comrades.”

In addition, the appeals panel reversed Judge Crabb’s ruling on judges directly soliciting campaign dollars:

“A contribution given directly to a judge, in response to a judge’s personal solicitation of that contribution, carries with it both a greater potential for a quid pro quo and a greater appearance of a quid pro quo than a contribution given to the judge’s campaign committee at the request of someone other than the judge, or in response to a mass mailing sent above the judge’s signature.”

The appeals court decision has its roots, according to the Journal Sentinel, in a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In that case, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, the Supreme Court struck down an ethics rule that barred judicial candidates from stating their views “on disputed legal or political issues.” The ruling dramatically accelerated the politicization of judicial elections.

The initial lawsuit contesting limits on judges in Wisconsin was brought by Milwaukee Judge John Siefert. The judge said this week he will challenge the part of the latest ruling that deals with fundraising.

Jim Alexander, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, considered the appeals court ruling progress because it prohibits judges endorsing partisan candidates and directly soliciting campaign donations.

Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group, contended that if judicial campaigns were financed publicly, then judges would not need to get backing from special interest groups or do private fundraising. His group, a partner of Justice at Stake, supports campaign finance reform steps.

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