Not for the first time I have thought of Annette Ziegler, and then asked myself what this country is coming to. For many months I have written on this blog about the reason that Wisconsin’s judiciary would be undermined if she were allowed to sit on the State Supreme Court. Her actions regarding conflict of interest issues while serving as a Washington County Circuit judge made her campaign for the high court painful to watch.
I had strongly advocated that she end her campaign in a post on March 12th. I am not aware of any other blogger that made such a statement.
Annette Ziegler can do one thing in this campaign that is truly honorable, and that is to end her race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She can show her fellow citizens that the system of law is more important than the personal ambitions of one person. She can show our young children that we are accountable for every action, and responsible for all our decisions, be they good or bad. She can instill some sense of honor in the political process that is often sadly lacking.
I admit to feeling that the vast majority of the voters were not well informed during the election, or worse yet, did not care what they voted for when electing Zielger. The election of Ziegler was not the best day for democracy in the Badger State.
Still I was surprised last week when the Wisconsin Judicial Commission released their complaint, and failed to hold Ziegler as accountable for her actions, as they should have. Their ‘remedy’ for the whole affair was to endorse the idea of a reprimand when the State Supreme Court ultimately takes up the issue.
On April 3oth I wrote that this issue was of great importance for the state.
“…it is imperative that we as a state get the deliberations about her past conflicts right. The highest moral obligation we now have with this matter is to preserve, as best we can, the high ideals of what a fair and objective rendering of justice in Wisconsin should include. The codes of conduct for a judge are clear, and the consequences for abusing them are serious. They must not be watered down and diluted just because we are dealing with a newly elected member to the Supreme Court. It would be a most grievous shortcoming if we failed to honestly confront the damage that has come to light over Ziegler’s actions on the lower court.”
I still hold to that view!
This past week the Commission found that Ziegler had abused the system just as was made very clear to the public during this springs election. She had handled cases where she had an economic interest. Her husband had sat on the board of a bank while she heard cases dealing with that financial institution.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported last week there were numerous examples of misconduct, along with her many conflicts of interest.
The commission focused on seven cases involving three companies — Federal National Mortgage Association, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corp. — in which Ziegler owned between $7,009 and $60,048 in stock. Ziegler was warned that judges must disclose any financial interests that “could reasonably raise a question as to the judge’s impartiality.”
“Judge Ziegler acknowledges and expresses her deep regret for the errors in judgment which she made and for any effect her conduct may have had on the Wisconsin judicial system,” according to the joint recommendation from Ziegler and the commission. “For that she apologizes to this court and to the public.”
Exactly what is her apology supposed to do? Her actions while in Washington County were not new for someone on the bench. There have been other tainted judges in Wisconsin. But to pretend that the conflicts of interest did not matter while seeking a seat on the Supreme Court, and now not being held accountable for them in a meaningful way with this investigation, is a slap to the entire judicial process in Wisconsin. It is also a slap in the face of the citizenry that respects the law and abides by it. Every civics teacher or student who ever cared about these topics must feel undermined.
Perhaps I am now clearly defined as being ‘old fashioned’. I just believe that there is right and wrong. And what Ziegler did while serving as Washington County Circuit judge was wrong. And not to correct that wrong now is even more of a problem.
Are the Judicial Commission findings the best way to promote the idea of fairness and equality in the justice system? Are Ziegler’s actions the way judges are now to conduct business from the bench? If the severity for unethical acts (or worse) is no more than a simple reprimand then I suggest our whole system of justice is in serious trouble.
As I wrote on April 30th, “More important they (the public) have a right to expect not only a response that will demonstrate the gravity of the matter, but also a strong signal that this type of activity is not acceptable in Wisconsin.”
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission failed in their mission.