The issues that surround some of those who sit on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, and how they were elected, has been a topic that I have thought a lot about. Most Wisconsinites have been forced to think about these matters as well, given the last two rancorous and dreadfully expensive races for the court. While I have long felt that public election to the Supreme Court was superior to other methods of placing citizens on the bench, in light of the recent problems that show no signs of ending, I have started to alter my views. It is time to think about merit selection for the Supreme Court. And I am glad that I am not alone in my point of view.
On this blog I have railed against the actions of Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler due to her ethical lapses as a circuit judge in Washington County. I have grave concerns about the message her presence on the bench sends not only to the Badger State, but also around the nation. Meanwhile I had strong words of opposition over Michael Gableman, as I view him as an empty vessel without the intellectual heft that is required for the very important work on the court. In both cases, but for different reasons, these individuals are seriously flawed, and as a result the state judiciary suffers.
The fact that each of these individuals had the right to place their name on the ballot, raise huge amounts of money from special interest sources, and manipulate the voters with never-ending TV commercials in no way means that once elected they have the necessary skills or ethics to well serve the public, or the letter of the law. The manner in which they ran for the bench does not enhance the image of the court, or benefit our judicial system. The current electoral flaws that allow a Ziegler or a Gableman to become a justice sends the wrong message about how importantly we should view our judicial system. At a time when public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking there should be ideas advanced that would reverse that sad downward trend. Merit selection is one idea that should be considered to make our State Supreme Court better, and also to assure the citizenry that qualified jurists are at work.
There are different ways that merit selection can work. But the process would start with a nonpartisan group that would recommend names for the court. Then either the governor or legislature might make the selection. After a set number of years the voters could then vote yes or no on retaining that person for another term. What appeals to me so very much is the idea that the first step in the process would insure that only highly qualified and thoughtful names would be advanced. The ones with low ethical standards that do not mesh with our ideals, or those without intelligence that reflects our needs would be weeded out.
We can no longer pretend there is not a credibility problem with the court. The electoral process is loaded with ways for special interests to almost insure that a candidate with an agenda is elected. We all can recognize the reasons that ill-serves our state. Since the general public has proved unable or unwilling to make better decisions for the judiciary, I think merit selection is an idea whose time has come.