Merit Selection For Supreme Court Gets Editorial Backing

I was most pleased to see merit selection for the justices on the state supreme court received solid support in an important newspaper in our state. This is a foundation topic at Caffeinated Politics, as it would greatly aid in the strengthening of our democracy.

The Beloit Daily News wrote an editorial regarding Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn who was the sole conservative on the bench to demonstrate fealty to our Constitution and election process following the November balloting. As such he is receiving much news coverage for his strongly held views.

What stands out so wonderfully from the editorial, apart from the accurate summation of how Hagedorn has upheld the law, is the newspaper’s clear writing about the need for merit selection.

We have been among those disillusioned by the outright politicization of the state Supreme Court over the last several election cycles. Despite the theoretical nonpartisan nature of judicial elections, anyone paying attention easily can determine which candidate represents the Democrat side and which the Republican side. Big dollars flow, with the purpose of trying to elect a reliable left- or right-wing court. By all appearances, the strategy has been working.

But when high stakes partisan cases arrive at the court, the split has been evident. Expectations have been evident, too, with harsh reactions from the right when Hagedorn dared to break ranks and follow what he believes the law requires.

Justice Hagedorn deserves praise, not condemnation, for demonstrating that rarest of qualities in this hyper-partisan era—judicial independence. He’s still a conservative jurist, and we’re OK with that. What he’s proving, though, is that he’s not necessarily a partisan jurist, and all of Wisconsin should be pleased with that.

Unfortunately, Justice Hagedorn also is an aberration as a swing vote. He is flanked on the left and right by three reliable partisans when a case involves political matters.

The court is still broken.

In the past, we have advocated for abandoning elections in favor of a merit appointment system to fill vacancies on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Such a system would not remove governors and legislators from the process. Rather, it would add a layer with the sole intent of finding candidates for appointment who are loyal to the law, not a political movement or party. Nearly half the states use some form of merit commission for nominations, not only for Supreme Court positions but often for appellate and trial courts. Commissions are charged with creating a list of potential nominees, considered solely on their merits and independence, then submitting the list to the governor for nomination, and the legislature for confirmation.

This topic is one of the issues where my thinking has evolved to the largest degree over time. Thirty 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 balloting 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. 

As such I sincerely say thanks for the Beloit Daily News editorial about this needed change.

Merit Selection Even More Needed Following High Court Recusal Vote

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.

Partisan Tone For Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Underscores Need For Merit Selection Of Judges

This is not a good time to think that the upcoming race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court will make us think about some grand civics book lesson from our youth.    In fact, it appears that just the opposite will be taking place over the coming months.

Vince Megna, one of the candidates hoping to win election announced that he is a Democrat.  “I’m a Democrat, there’s no doubt about  that,” struck many as truly a most inappropriate statement.  It was unsettling coming from someone seeking a job as one of our state’s top jurists, a position that still should be expected to be non-partisan.

But just as recklessly the incumbant, Justice Patience Roggensack, announced that a Wisconsin official of the national GOP has been selected to run her campaign.

There is no doubt that the election process for the supreme court has reduced the scales of justice to nothing more than a partisan slugfest.  This is not the first time pure partisanship has been displayed, and sadly it must be recognized how these types of elections has tarnished and stained the court.

That should anger 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.

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 public attitude about the court is the manner in which elections are held.   We must be concerned about elevating the stature of the judiciary.

I fully understand that there are many who oppose this idea.  But I think people have to care enough about the problem right in front of us concerning court elections to think outside the box, and examine how other models for judge selections can be made.

Until then hold your nose, as this election is going to reek!

Once Again, A Call For Merit Selection Of Judges

How many times does this need to be said before it sinks in?

It would be nice to think that state Supreme Court elections could be  honorable affairs. After all, judges — unlike lawmakers and governors — are  supposed to be nonpartisan and impartial. They’re supposed to rule on the law,  not represent constituents.

Yet Wisconsin’s system of selecting justices by popular vote has devolved  into a mud pit of accusations and special-interest money, which tars even the  winning candidate. Trust in the high court falls as conflicts of interest rise.  The same lawyers and groups that spend millions to help elect justices  subsequently come before those same men and women in black robes seeking legal  decisions.

There’s a better way. About half of the states appoint high court members  based on merit, rather than on their ability to wage campaign wars. Sens. Dale  Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, are leading the push  for merit selection, which would insulate the process from politics (as much as  possible) and prevent governors from stacking the high court with their  cronies.  

Judge Juan Colas Another Reason For Merit Selection Of Judges

While I very much agree with Judge Juan Colas’ decision on collective bargaining, I also very much agree with the sentiments of the Wisconsin State Journal about the need for merit selection of justices.

I have used this blog as a vehicle to advance the idea of merit selection.

On this blog I have railed against the actions of Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler due to her ethical lapses as a circuit judge in Washington County.   I have grave concerns about the message her presence on the bench sends not only to the Badger State, but also around the nation.  Meanwhile I had strong words of opposition over Michael Gableman, as I view him as an empty vessel without the intellectual heft that is required for the very important work on the court.  In both cases, but for different reasons, these individuals are seriously flawed, and as a result the state judiciary suffers.

The fact that each of these individuals had the right 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 in no way means that once elected they have the necessary skills or ethics to well serve the public, or the letter of the law.  The manner in which they ran for the bench does not enhance the image of the court, or benefit our judicial system.  The current electoral flaws that allow a Ziegler or a Gableman to become a justice sends the wrong message about how importantly we should view our judicial system.  At a time when public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking there should be ideas advanced that would reverse that sad downward trend.  Merit selection is one idea that should be considered to make our State Supreme Court better, and also to assure the citizenry that qualified jurists are at work.

Today the WSJ had another reason with Judge Colas to advance this matter.

That’s not to say Colas made the wrong decision. We’ll leave the complicated  legal arguments over Act 10 to the courts. Nor do we know if Colas allowed  politics or public pressure to affect his decision.

The point is that Colas, as an elected judge, risks his job if he makes a  decision voters don’t like. And in this case, voters in union-loving Dane County  loved Colas’ determination that Walker’s curbs on unions were  unconstitutional.

So Colas should have an easy time winning re-election in 2015. Had he upheld  Walker’s law, Colas would have drawn aggressive opposition.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

Electing judges — especially at the high court level — isn’t working in  Wisconsin. Neither is the system of allowing governors to unilaterally appoint  justices to fill vacancies.

The bipartisan push by Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Dale Schultz,  R-Richland Center, for a better system of appointing high court justices  deserves support. Called merit selection, it would insulate the process from  politics (as much as possible) and prevent governors from stacking the high  court with cronies.

Merit Selection Makes For Wisconsin State Journal Editorial

Once again the most sane way to curtail the partisan nature of placing a judge on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has made for a must read editorial in the paper.  I have long argued for merit selection, and am heartened that slowly others are coming to see this idea as one that can cut the expense and politicization of court races.

Two more members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court say it’s time to consider merit  selection of high court justices.

“I really think it’s time to take a look again,” Justice Patrick Crooks told  the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism last week.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley similarly said merit reform deserves attention.

This follows Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s memo last fall indicating a  willingness to discuss whether high court justices should continue to be elected  in nasty, money-drenched campaigns

If anything, the aggressive partisans on both the left and the right seem  united in their desire to fight endlessly for partisan control of the judicial  branch, just as they now fight for partisan control of the Legislature.

But unlike the Legislature, our highest court isn’t supposed to be  representative. It’s not supposed to advocate on issues.

Our Wisconsin Supreme Court is supposed to be independent and impartial. It’s  supposed to be above the fray.

 

Merit Selection On Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s Radar

This is what I like to see.

One of the drum beats heard over and over on CP is the one demanding merit selection be used for placing justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Today the Wisconsin State Journal editorialized on the idea, and used the latest memo from Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to underscore the need for this reform.

Wisconsin’s high court should absolutely have an honest and open debate over the bipartisan push in the Legislature to end state Supreme Court elections. These ugly judicial elections, driven by shadowy special interest groups with lots at stake in future court decisions, are a huge contributor to our high court’s embarrassing dysfunction.

It was bad enough that the quality and experience of court candidates has been slipping over the last decade as judicial campaigns have become more vicious and money-soaked. It was bad enough that public distrust in court decisions has fallen just as partisan squabbles and 4-3 votes have increased.

As the paper noted Abrahamson was a supporter of merit selection decades ago, and one can only hope that she will lend her strong voice for this needed change to our judiciary in these troubled times.

The reasons rational and level-headed debate on this matter should take place is based on the recent history of the court.  I am not just referring to the shameful choking incident, but something even more depressing.

On this blog I have railed against the actions of Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler due to her ethical lapses as a circuit judge in Washington County. I have grave concerns about the message her presence on the bench sends not only to the Badger State, but also around the nation.

Meanwhile I had strong words of opposition over Michael Gableman, as I view him as an empty vessel without the intellectual heft that is required for the very important work on the court. In both cases, but for different reasons, these individuals are seriously flawed, and as a result the state judiciary suffers.

The fact that each of these individuals had the right 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 in no way means that once elected they have the necessary skills or ethics to well serve the public, or the letter of the law. The manner in which they ran for the bench does not enhance the image of the court, or benefit our judicial system.

The current electoral flaws that allow a Ziegler or a Gableman to become a justice sends the wrong message about how importantly we should view our judicial system.

At a time when public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking there should be ideas advanced that would reverse that sad downward trend. Merit selection is one idea that should be considered to make our State Supreme Court better, and also to assure the citizenry that qualified jurists are at work.

Replacing Supreme Court Elections With Merit Selection

I applaud the words of local writer Emily Mills concerning the need to replace elections for the Supreme Court with merit selection.

In part Mills pens….

Oh, Lord, you’re likely thinking, don’t you suggest allowing Gov. Walker to have the final say in picking our Supreme Court justices. I’m not. But there must be a middle road — a system that significantly reduces the amount of outside spending and influence on the people who sit on the bench without putting too much power into the hands of too few.

I looked at some of the systems in place in states that don’t hold public elections for their justices. Some modified version of the Missouri and Tennessee plans, for instance, might make the most sense.

In those plans, a selection committee is created to research and interview potential justices for an open seat on the court. The committee then compiles a list of recommended candidates and sends it to the governor for the final decision. One year into the first term, the winner must stand for a statewide retention election, giving the public the final check on the decision.

The trick would be in making sure the committee was composed of a diverse sampling of knowledgeable individuals — people who have a deep understanding of how the judicial branch of our government is supposed to function and who represent both majority and minority populations and opinions. The committee could be chosen from within and by organizations like the State Bar Association, law schools, community service groups and the Legislature.