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Merit Selection Even More Needed Following High Court Recusal Vote

April 20, 2017

To say the least it was most disappointing to learn the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out a proposal to create formal recusal rules for judges and justices in the state.  It was almost as if the justices were somehow so insulated they could not hear or feel the mood among a growing segment of the populace who thinks that justice often hangs on the purse strings of those who help out at election time.  And that is a most concerning problem.  The petition would have applied to all elected judges in the state who serve in municipal court, circuit court, the Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court.

Thursday the court voted 5-2 to dismiss a petition request to create specific rules for when a judge or justice should be removed from a case because they received campaign donations from a group or individual with a case before the court.  The only justices able to see the reason and logic for such a policy were Shirley Abrahamson Ann Walsh Bradley.

What concerns many is how this matter somehow winds up being fought about on ideological lines.  That should alert all to the dangers of where our state supreme court is heading.  Some would argue, and do so convincingly, that our court has alrady succumbed to pure partisan splits.   The court’s conservative-leaning majority cast the petition out and the liberal-leaning justices voted to advance the idea.    How such an idea of making sure fairness is not in question for cases being heard before the high court can then be turned into a partisan affair leaves many civic-minded citizens shaking their heads.

And for good reason.

Citizens deserve a Supreme Court that can be viewed as a fair arbiter on the big judicial questions that face the state.  I take no glee in stating this vote undermines the court’s credibility and severely erodes its luster.  Some might even term the outcome as pure political shenanigans.

I  find it sad  that at a time when public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking the conservatives on the court would not see the wisdom of making sure their actions are absolutely above reproach.  We all come up as losers when this does not happen.

The foundation of the problems that were showcased by the court vote could all be removed and settled if the court justices were not elected. 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?  Why should the citizenry need to ask themselves if special interests are buying judges and rulings?

There is, after all, 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.

I can see in our current political climate how some will say my idea is elitist.  To them I only ask for a proper consideration if the way we elect a member to congress is a good model for the way to elect a member to the supreme court?   Does a slick series of ads from faceless contributors with deep pockets mean the judicial candidate has the necessary skills or ethics to well serve the public, or the letter of the law?

Following this court action merit selection is needed now more than ever in Wisconsin.

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