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Applauding Bar Of Wisconsin Task Force On Supreme Court Reform

July 7, 2013

scales-justice

There is much to applaud with the recent dialogue being generated by a state Bar of Wisconsin task force report which aims at formulating a path towards a less politically charged Wisconsin Supreme Court.  In short the task force wants judges to be less beholden to special-interest money by serving one 16-year term.

Constructive ideas aimed at illuminating the problems involving the court, and bringing the public into the arena by finding a path forward should be greeted with openness.  We do not have to agree with the conclusions of the task force, but should use this opening for the broad-based debate we need to have as a state concerning the court.  That is something which everyone should be able to agree, regardless of political stripes.

Too often over the past years the court has been the source of headlines that had far less to do with legal decisions they handed down than the tone of interactions between judges, the quality of the candidates running for office, and the large campaign structures that seemingly were necessary to win a seat on the high bench.

There is no lack of news stories that leave us wondering at times about the professional qualities that we associate with justices, or the high expectations of judicial fairness the high bench should always be noted for when conducting their business.  That is why I am very pleased with the efforts of the task force as they sought solutions towards a better functioning court, even if all are not wedded to their conclusion.  Many state voters are aware that reforms are needed to lessen the possibilities that legal decisions are framed for re-election purposes.  In addition, most would agree that if we are to have an election process for justices it should be less expensive and far less political.

While the commission did entertain the idea of merit selection for high court judges, one that has the support of many including the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board and this blog, it found no political support for such a change at this time.  I would suggest, however, that if there were more political partners from both sides of the aisle that would forcefully talk for the issue a larger group of state voters would come to understand the logic that comes with merit selection.  There is common acceptance that dysfunction exists both in how we elect judges, and the way the court at times operates.  Now the public needs leaders who can frame the merit selection issue, and present reasons why it matters to enact such a reform.

Merit selection is not something that most folks know much about but it has worked in other places, and Wisconsin would be well suited for such a reform.

Let me be most direct in how I feel.  I am not interested in just anyone with an itch being able to raise huge amounts of money from special interest sources, and manipulate the voters with never-ending TV commercials to win a seat on the high court.  I think one needs to first have the necessary skills and ethics to serve the letter of the law.   With merit selection comes the best and most able who may have an interest in being a judge rising to the top through a most credible process.

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 ensure 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 question is what to do about it.  I am very pleased with the work of the task force, and look forward to more of the statewide conversation on this matter.

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