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Time For Merit Selection Of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices

December 28, 2010

Today the Wisconsin State Journal hit the nail on the head in their editorial concerning the spring elections.  Sadly, too few will make it to the final paragraphs in the piece, or think twice about it.

One of the issues where my thinking has evolved to the largest degree over time has to do with the way we select judges to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.  Twenty years ago I was a strong supporter of the election process which allowed state citizens a direct voice in electing judges. 

I admit there seems something very ‘American’ about the process.  I know there is still a very strong public desire for such elections, as people think that this process allows them to make for a better court system. 

But what is happening to the role of justice in Wisconsin with the blending of very costly campaigns that blur into political races should concern all of us.  The end result is not a better court system, but instead a fractured and deteriorated one. 

That we have allowed supreme court races to become multimillion dollar slugfests is undermining the way justice is conducted on the high court.  After all, the Supreme Court  has refused to adopt a rule on when specific campaign contributions should trigger recusals from cases that are pending before the justices.  That we even need to talk about such issues should send a clear signal that something is wrong, and a remedy is required.

My concern is that the rule of law, and the elevated stature of the judiciary are in jeopardy.  These are  important matters to consider.  I do not think just anyone should be allowed 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.  Justice should not be so easily manipulated.

This may smack some as elitist.  To them I ask they answer two concerns I have.

First, should the style that we witnessed this past November when electing Congress be a model for the way we elect a member to the supreme court? 

Second, does a slick series of ads from faceless contributors with deep pockets mean the candidate has the necessary skills or ethics to well serve the public, or the letter of the law?

I do not feel that those who think it is ‘their right’ to elect supreme court justices ever ponder the larger questions of process and ethics.

Therefore I am in complete agreement with what the WSJ penned today.

Then there’s the state Supreme Court race, which is shaping up to be another mud bath featuring millions of dollars in attack ads soiling the high court’s image. It’s a terrible way to select our top judges, who unlike other elected officials are supposed to be impartial and insulated from public influence.

For now, Wisconsin is stuck with its badly flawed judicial elections. And it’s hard to see how public financing of campaigns will change much, given that special interest groups can still spend whatever they want.

There is a way to correct the problems which comes from electing justices.   That would be just stop electing them!

We should strongly consider, and then implement the merit selection system for placing a judge on the high court.

There are different ways that merit selection can work.  But the process could 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. 

The likes of  Annette Ziegler or a  Michael Gableman would never surface when the goal is to have the best and brightest serve. 

To allow for the corroded electoral process of electing justices to continue does not serve the greater good, or live up to the standards of justice that we (hopefully) were taught in civics class.

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