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Perceptions About Wisconsin State Supreme Court Matter

October 20, 2013

I felt uncomfortable Sunday while reading the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal concerning the state’s high court.  Within a few paragraphs it seemed that Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was making decisions on cases based on something other than a firm legal finding.  It appeared that lawyers who donated money to her campaigns were getting something for their money.  As the story unfolded it also was reported that justices tended to rule in favor of clients whose attorneys contribute to the  justices’ election campaigns.

It seemed that justice could be manipulated with money.

At the outset it should be noted that I have deep respect for Justice Abrahamson.  I find her to be honorable, highly intelligent, and one of the most pleasant women to have a conversation with that one can meet.  I sat a little straighter as I read the article as it made me feel that she was being tarred in a way that was not fair.    I am sure there are many others around the state who feel the same about the other justices mentioned in the story.

While I would hope that a financial contribution would not bend an otherwise smart jurist from rendering a legal opinion, it also has to be stated up front that the whole question would be moot if some common sense proposals were enacted into law.  While I want to think that justices are a caliber or two above others in government, (and I guess that view harkens back to my civics education) I also am aware that the perception of justice not being handed out in a fair manner is one that exists among the citizenry.  The question therefore is what can we do to find a remedy.

The underlying themes that were presented in the story are not new, and in fact have long been talked about by good-government types for many years.  It is troubling that there is a partisan angle to our judicial elections.  I argue it is unwise that we even have elections for the high court in the manner they are now held.  And I certainly have problems with the cash that is allowed to be used in these races.

Many have advocated for merit selection for the court, and failing that at least public financing for judicial races.  The reason something must be done is that citizens deserve a supreme court that can be viewed as a fair arbiter on the big judicial questions that face the state.  When public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking we need to find the path forward to instill trust and a sense of competence.

At the heart of the matter is the blending of very costly judicial campaigns that blur into political races.  With that as a fact it is almost impossible not to then have a collision of interests and ethics when cases are heard.  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 were taught in civics class.

What was on the front page of the paper should trouble us all.  Not only because we may know that one or more of the justices are really mired in the law and the process of hearing and ruling cases in a fair manner, but that there does exist a tangled set of ethical matters that needs to be clarified and then fixed.

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