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Costly, Mean-Spirited Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Could Have Been Averted

September 16, 2015

The news today from the Wisconsin Supreme Court should be greeted with dread.

Justice Patrick Crooks has announced he will not seek re-election to the state’s highest court when his term ends in 2016.  Anyone who has served as long and ably as Crooks certainly deserves a sweet retirement.   But what follows his announcement is also the certainty of a long, bitter, costly, and partisan-filled  campaign for a seat that should not be partisan.

There is no doubt that the upcoming spring election process for the open seat will have less to do about the scales of justice and far more to do with being a partisan slugfest.  This is not the first time pure partisanship will have been displayed for such a race but as the past has demonstrated such rancor in court races has tarnished and stained the whole court.

That should deeply concern everyone.

Why should our state continually need to endure  rancorous and expensive elections for the court when there is a better way to proceed for the selection of justices?  Why should the citizens have to watch as candidates for the bench raise huge amounts of money from special interest sources, in a hope to manipulate the voters with never-ending TV commercials that in no way illuminate whether they have the necessary skills or ethics to serve the public, or the letter of the law?

But it need not be this way.  Again and again I have stressed another way to fill places on the high bench.

Merit selection is a workable and seasoned process which would allow for a more intelligent and honorable way to select a judge.

One way this could be accomplished is with a nonpartisan group making recommendations for the court.  Then either the governor or legislature might make the final 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.  Pure partisan hacks would be eliminated at the very front end of the process.

The reason I want a change in the process is to stem the decline in the respect the court is experiencing.  One of the reasons for the current public attitude about the court is the manner in which elections are held.   We must be concerned about elevating the stature of the judiciary, and merit selection would do that very thing.

What is about to unfold in Wisconsin in the months to come will only further erode the confidence of the citizenry towards a part of government that should have our highest respect.

4 Comments
  1. September 17, 2015 8:04 PM

    Tom,

    I answered your concern with this in my post. After a set number of years the voters could then vote yes or no on retaining that person for another term. But it would not be a contest between two contenders

  2. tom permalink
    September 17, 2015 7:59 PM

    Let’s suppose that unicorns did exist and an “impartial” board did nominate “impartial” justices. This does not alter the problem of accountability. Suppose a reasonable person determined that Justices were not “impartial,” how would the citizens of the state be able to remove the justice if not through the ballot box? Right now Supremes serve 10 year terms. This seems like an incredible amount of freedom to me.

    And shouldn’t the public be able to determine the type of justices they want to rule impartially? Some judges strictly interpret the law, others seek to enact what they consider justice. Leaving the merit of either position aside for the moment, shouldn’t the public and not some old-boy’s network from the courthouse be able to determine what they want?

    To me the fact that elections for the judicial branch have become “messy” is to me in no way a reason for abandoning the sacred tradition of the ballot.

  3. September 17, 2015 11:25 AM

    Commissioners for merit selection are usually chosen by panels of public officials, attorneys, and private citizens. The panels may include the governor, the attorney general, judges of the state’s highest court, bar association officers, private citizens, and in some instances, members of the state legislature.

    As I noted in my post—and also in the past—my concern is about the way the judiciary is viewed by the public. The degree to which we think judges to be fair when ruling is another reason for merit selection. Public expectation of getting a fair hearing in the courts is a cornerstone of the judicial system, so it is essential that judges be impartial and free of economic and political pressure. But in WI a candidate has to campaign first to get nominated and then to get elected. Putting is even more simply I think most people believe that Courts are supposed to be the one safe place where every citizen can receive a fair hearing.

  4. tom permalink
    September 17, 2015 9:01 AM

    The idea of nonpartisan boards working in secret with secret criteria provided by the Wisconsin Bar Association (another organization of elites secreted away from view) to propose one or two candidates does not strike me as democratic or in the best interest of accountability. Partisan elections are messy, but generally open.

    That dark money leads to unreliable claims and some misleading information is not an insightful observation, but an obvious one. The citizens are capable of seeing through it.

    Judges do not and should not be viewed in some special cloistered position. They need to be accountable as any other elected official. This is largely our least transparent branch of government and needs our attention.

    I am not anti judge, just anti partisan board and anti granting judges some elite status which is not in the best interest of the body politic.

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