Gavel Grab

Series Casts Spotlight on Judicial Recusal Issues in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s lack of “meaningful” recusal rules is among reasons the state should consider shifting from election of its Supreme Court justices to their appointment through merit selection, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said.

Another member of the court, Justice Patrick Crooks, said disagreements over recusal are a factor in the court’s sharp and often bitter divide. ”It hurts the court in terms of its image and it certainly has hurt the court internally because of the very strong feelings on either side,” Justice Crooks said.

The justices were quoted in an intriguing series by Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about the state’s acrimoniously divided high court and recusal. The court’s problems are so great that Lueders quoted a New York Times editorial calling it “A Study of Judicial Dysfunction.” He quoted Justice at Stake spokesman Charles Hall as saying, “Wisconsin has very deeply entrenched battle lines on a number of fronts, and recusal is one of them.”

Lueder’s first article is entitled, “Wisconsin Supreme Court justices battle over recusing themselves.” It detailed “Wisconsin’s lo0se and secretive system for determining when judges and justices should recuse themselves. Most other states have clearer, more objective recusal standards.”

Other articles in the series included: “Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack decided case involving her own lawyer;” “Wisconsin Supreme Court justices weigh in on the recusal issue;” “Wisconsin Supreme Court out of step with national standards on recusal;” and “Reforming the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s approach to recusal.” The final article highlighted proposals by the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner group.

Testifying before a Wisconsin legislative panel in 2010 (see Gavel Grab), Justice at Stake said Wisconsin’s policy is one of only a few nationally that allows recusal only when a judge subjectively decides he or she is biased. Forty-eight states have an “objective” standard, JAS said, in which a judge should not hear a case if a neutral observer might reasonably conclude that bias exists.

The recusal debate has gained significance in recent years, as litigants have spent heavily to elect judges before whom they appear in court. Acording to a Justice at Stake poll in 2010, more than 80 percent of the public believes judges should not hear cases involving major campaign supporters.

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