Jan 18 2012

Judicial Politics in Wisconsin Undermines Public Trust

Published by under Merit Selection

The courts have become a football in Wisconsin’s ongoing political fights.  Wisconsin’s judges, like those in Pennsylvania, are elected, and judicial elections have become markedly more contentious since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s row with the state’s labor unions last year.  The Wisconsin State Journal has called for merit selection stating:

 Wisconsin’s broken system for selecting members to its highest court favors partisanship and political connections when justices are appointed by governors — with zero oversight — to fill vacancies. And when elections actually do occur, Wisconsin’s system for selecting its top judges favors campaign skills and special interest backing.  Lost in the process is the need for experience, independence and impartiality.

The State Journal called for a system of merit selection that relies on a citizens nominating commission to screen candidates for potential appointment by the governor.:

Many liberal and conservative activists would rather continue to fight for control of the court in expensive, mud-slinging elections. But Wisconsin deserves and needs a high court with honor, one that doesn’t favor either political party, one that makes decisions based on the law regardless of the political fallout.

Merit selection is the best answer to Wisconsin’s embarrassing and dysfunctional state Supreme Court.

A poll conducted by Justice at Stake has

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shown that recent judicial politicking and conflict has reduced Wisconsinites’ faith in their Supreme Court from 52% three years ago to 33% today.  This highlights the dangers of judicial elections.  Whether such elections actually produce more corruption, the public’s faith in the judicial system is undermined by the perception of favoritism resulting from candidates’ fundraising and political ties.


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Sep 09 2011

Wisconsin Ready for a Change…to Merit Selection

The recent events in Wisconsin have brought to a head growing concerns about the independence and integrity of the Wisconsin judiciary. The latest proponent of change? Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. According to a Wisconsin State Journal editorial, Abrahamson “indicated in a memo to her colleagues this week that she wants her Wisconsin Supreme Court to be more transparent.” And even more significant for Wisconsin citizens and fair courts advocates, she also “indicated a willingness to discuss whether high court justices should continue to be elected.”

The editorial refers to many of the growing problems of the Wisconsin Supreme Court—from “vicious and money-soaked” judicial campaigns to “partisan squabbles” to actual “physical altercations.” Like political cartoonist Phil Hands, the editorialist sees the comedy of the situation. “It sounds more like a ‘Three Stooges’ episode than the highest court in Wisconsin carefully and dispassionately deciding sensitive and complicated legal disputes.”

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However, as those watching the events in Wisconsin unfold would agree, public distrust in the courts is never funny. “Wisconsin’s wild and bruising judicial elections soil even the reputations of the winning candidates.” The article laments, “These ugly judicial elections, driven by shadowy special interest groups with lots at stake in future court decisions, are a huge contributor to our high court’s embarrassing dysfunction.”

PMC shares the concerns expressed by this editorial regarding the danger of partisan politics and excessive campaign spending. Like the editorialist, we, too, hope that Abrahamson’s “memo this week indicates renewed interest in merit selection — a big reform that’s badly needed to restore trust in high court decisions.”

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Jun 02 2011

Call for “Extinction” of Judicial Elections

The race for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice finally ended on Tuesday when Joanne Kloppenburg conceded defeat after a recount, but the “ugly, money-soaked race” has left some questioning the use of judicial elections. Kloppenburg herself expressed hope that the election would be a “wake-up call” that the system needs improvements, but an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal goes further and calls for the “extinction” of judicial elections.

The editorial argues that the recent election demonstrates the need to switch to merit selection of judges.

Judicial elections in Wisconsin are nonpartisan, but the race between Kloppenburg and Justice David Prosser became a referendum on collective bargaining – a clearly partisan issue. In addition, special interest groups brought millions of dollars and negative ad campaigns into the race. In explaining the need for merit selection, the editorial points out the differences between judges and other elected officials:

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Unlike lawmakers and governors, our top judges aren’t supposed to represent constituencies or cater to the whims of the public. Unlike other elected officials, our top judges are supposed to be impartial and independent. But judicial elections are turning our best judges into the worst of politicians.

We agree. Merit Selection is the best way to take judges out of the business of politics, get money out of the judicial selection process, and ensure fair and impartial courts.

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Sep 14 2009

“Restoring Public Trust in Impartial Justice”

An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal urges that Merit Selection is the solution to the increasingly expensive and divisive judicial elections the state has been experiencing.  Although Wisconsin currently uses a system of nonpartisan elections, the editorial notes that well-financed third parties have become heavily involved in state judicial elections and that recent First Amendment challenges may pave the way for judicial elections to become partisan contests.  The editorial identifies this as a dire move:

That raises the question: Will the state get the best impartial justice possible or the most partial justice that well-financed campaign contributors can buy?

Introducing partisan elections to the judicial branch endangers judicial independence within the government system of checks and balances. Electing judges by majority vote in partisan ballots flies in the face of the judicial branch’s responsibilities to be independent of partisan influences and to check the power of the majority from trampling on the constitutional rights of the minority.

How would you like to appear in court before a judge elected with the support of interests who oppose your case?

This is a question we have been asking in Pennsylvania, where we elect all our judges in partisan elections.  The Wisconsin State Journal agrees with us on the solution: “Adopting merit selection is the best way for Wisconsin to restore public trust in impartial justice.”

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May 27 2009

“Merit Selection is the Right Choice”

An editorial in the  Wisconsin State Journal urges the adoption of Merit Selection in the face of increasing concerns about the role of money in judicial elections and the pressure on judges to state their opinions during judicial campaigns.  In fact, there is now a pending recusal motion based on a Supreme Court justice’s campaign trail statements about sentencing decisions and procedural issues in criminal cases. The editorial notes:

[The recusal] request points to the serious consequences when judicial elections become charged with politics and outside money, as Wisconsin’s have. Justices who are supposed to be accountable for upholding the law instead become accountable for campaign promises.
More ominously, justices risk becoming accountable to the interests who bankroll their multi-million-dollar campaigns.

The stakes are described by the question: Is Wisconsin getting the best impartial justice it can provide, or is it getting the most partial justice that well-financed, partisan interests can buy?

Studies across the nation reveal decreasing public confidence in the courts, in large part due to the role of money in judicial campaigns.  It is crucial to maintain the public trust in the fairness and impartiality of our courts.  Without that trust, the foundation of our system is undermined.

Why continue to use a system of judicial selection that results in a lack of public confidence in our judges and courts?  The Wisconsin State Journal has a good solution for Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: “Reform is required. Merit selection is the right choice.”

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Mar 30 2009

Calling for Merit Selection in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is in the midst of a heated Supreme Court race, but the Wisconsin State Journal has decided not to endorse a candidate for election to the bench. Instead in a strong editorial, the Journal explains it:

[E]ndorses a better method of choosing state Supreme Court justices — merit selection.

The selection of judges based on merit, by a nonpartisan committee, would:

• Reduce the role of money and politics in judicial selection.

• Avoid conflicts of interest that arise when justices are tied to campaign contributors who have interests in cases before the court.

• Improve Wisconsin’s ability to ensure its highest quality judges serve on its highest court.

• Restore public trust in impartial justice.

We certainly agree with the Journal’s assessment.  We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the chance to determine whether they would prefer a Merit Selection system.

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Feb 06 2009

Praising Merit in Wisconsin

A column in last weekend’s Wisconsin State Journal praises Merit Selection as the best way to select judges:

Most of Wisconsin doesn’t want a liberal or conservative court. We want a court filled with justices who have the most experience, the strongest reputations for fairness, and records of rarely being overturned.

That’s what merit selection would best provide.

The column argues that Merit Selection is the system best designed to guarantee that qualified candidates reach the bench, minimize the role of partisan politics and ensure the independence of the judiciary.  It also explains why judicial elections, as influenced as they are by campaign contributions, third party financing and partisan politics do not really serve the best interests of the public: “It’s the current system of electing justices that gives control to the rich and powerful against the little guy.”

We agree that Merit Selection is the best way to select appellate court judges. We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get a chance to decide whether they agree.

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Jan 28 2009

Merit Selection is Right for Wisconsin

An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal lauds Merit Selection as the solution to the state’s broken electoral system:

The State Journal editorial board has strongly favored replacing Wisconsin’s disgraceful high court election system with merit selection. Recent state Supreme Court elections have been so soiled by outlandish TV ads and subsequent ethics investigations that trust in the court is falling. So is the quality of election winners.

The editorial compares a recent poll of voters in Washington with last year’s poll of Wisconsin voters.  The editorial argues that the Wisconsin poll, conducted by the Federalist Society, “completely misinterpreted [the] results” and improperly omitted any reference to Merit Selection as an alternative judicial selection method.  The Wisconsin State Journal concludes:

[v ]oters may well support a better system in which a civic-minded panel analyzes and picks a short list of the most experienced and impartial high court candidates in the state. And then the governor or some other appointing authority chooses from the list. . . . The recent poll in the state of Washington suggests public support for such a system could be quite strong in Wisconsin. The Badger State has long emphasized good government — something merit selection would foster.

We think Pennsylvanians are likely to support such a system as well.  We hope the people of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will get the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

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Jan 23 2009

“Merit is Better than Mudslinging”

Published by under Judges,Opinion

An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal argues that the state’s election system is not the best way to pick judges. In fact, the editorial calls the judicial election system “nasty and broken.”

Anticipating another bitter election fight and misleading advertisements based on one candidate’s past employment as a public defender, the editorial predicts a replay of the last election’s nasty campaign ads:

To her credit, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson has pledged not to exploit [opposing candidate Randy] Koschnick’s work as a public defender, which she called noble, according to the Associated Press this week. Koschnick is challenging Abrahamson for a 10-year term.

But shadowy special interest groups aren’t likely to follow Abrahamson’s example. Liberal groups mad about the ads that smeared Justice Louis Butler for his work as a public defender last year can now turn the tables by attacking Koschnick, a self-described conservative, for the same supposed offense.

This raises the familiar concerns about third-party spending to influence judicial elections and the increasingly negative tone of such campaigns.  These are serious problems that contribute to decreasing confidence in the impartiality and independence of the courts:

The personal attacks and gutter politics are a disgraceful way for Wisconsin to pick its top court. The quality and independence of the state’s Supreme Court is slipping along with public trust in its decisions.

Selecting justices based on merit — rather than mudslinging — is the answer.

Well put.

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Dec 30 2008

Joining the Merit Selection Bandwagon in Wisconsin

In its year-end story round-up, The Daily Page in Wisconsin discusses the Wisconsin State Journal’s call for Merit Selection, calling it the year’s “Best Crusade:”

[The issue is] reform of the state’s system of selecting Supreme Court justices. Instead of letting governors pick most of them, interspersed with ugly contests bankrolled by special interests, the paper is calling for merit selection, where applicants are culled by a nonpartisan panel. Don’t think it’s a good idea? Just watch the high court election we’re likely to have next year.

As we’ve written here and here, Wisconsin judicial elections have been getting more expensive, partisan and divisive.  The expectations are that this will only intensify.  We hope the Journal’s “Crusade” will continue to attract positive attention and gain more adherents.

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