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Merit Selection Needed For Judges On Wisconsin Supreme Court

July 20, 2008

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.

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9 Comments
  1. dno permalink
    July 22, 2008 10:31 AM

    Kevin, it is not the voters that carry the weight of this issue. Until the ballot has a “none of the above ” option, you (we) can only vote for who is on the ballot, and expect our vote to count. What is wrong with expecting minimum qualifications Of experiance and integrity in our judicial system. Be it Democrat or Republican it can only be a “win win” for everybody.
    We need to push both parties for their very best representitives. Democracy is failing right before our eyes. We should DEMAND excellence, We are Democracy.

  2. July 22, 2008 8:26 AM

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on judicial selection. I’m working for a group in Pennsylvania that’s trying to bring Merit Selection to our state. We’ve been reading the editorials in Wisconsin papers, but it’s good to know that Wisconsin citizens are talking about it too.

  3. July 21, 2008 9:50 PM

    Kevin,

    I suggest you do some reading about Missouri and the merit system they have. I think you will find this and other states to be better at reducing the problems in the system that we have in Wisconsin.

    I suggest it is folly not to see the problem under your nose……unless you like the problem. Or do you not see a problem with buying a judge?

  4. July 21, 2008 9:22 PM

    You’re right, us voters are just too stoopid to particpate in democracy.

  5. dno permalink
    July 21, 2008 5:19 PM

    Well then shame on us Curt if the morality of the voters in this state see fit to put a judge on the bench that is the poster child for a lack of ethics and a grand repesentitive of the “good ole boys” network. Do we feel safer and protected with Ziegler on the bench. If this is a partisian issue then I for one would think that the conservitive base that elected Ziegler is either lacking in the integrity that once set Wisconsin apart, or this is their best they can offer, and thats not saying a lot. I am baffled that in spite of the lack of judicial ethics, the the republicans considered Ziegler their best option. In addition, SHAME on the Democrats, they could not even bring a truly qualified candidate to the polls. Is there not one candidate sitting on the bench that the Democrates could tie their wagons to. The reason these latest judicial cadidates won their seats is not because they were the best choice but because people saw them as the only choice. I for one blame the Democratic party, thanks for that folks. Just remember one thing…..in time all things change, if you feel that Ziegler matches your ideals about truth, justice, and the American way, then suffer when the winds change and your getting the raw end because somebody else wants to make a profit at your expence with some back door dealing.

  6. Curt permalink
    July 21, 2008 4:03 PM

    An Election is a “Merit” selection. I personally thought that judge Butler did not merit selection to the court. Judicial philosophy doesn’t lend itself well to determining merit on an objective basis. This isn’t a sales job, nor a customer service job, where one might make the decision based on some sujective basis. ($ of sales, number of calls handled…)

    Election of judges takes the decision of merit out of the hands of the people, and puts it in the hand of a select few, who are more likely to skew one way or the other on the political spectrum, and on other issues as well.

  7. Fred permalink
    July 20, 2008 10:38 PM

    And this is your problem Deke.

    You have no issue with liberal special interests spending huge money to try and do exactly the same thing.

    You are just bitter that your side lost these two races.

    Get over it.

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  1. judgesonmerit.org » Opinion Shifts in Wisconsin to Support Merit Selection

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