Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler had no opponent on the April 4 ballot. Yet she won fewer votes than state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who faced a competitive race with conservative Lowell Holtz.
According to the latest Wisconsin Elections Commission tabulation, Evers won 495,010 votes.
Ziegler got just 492,352.
While more than 700,000 voters cast ballots in the race for superintendent of public instruction, only around 500,000 Wisconsinites bothered to vote in the Supreme Court race.
It is certainly true that there are some voters who skip uncontested races. But that does not explain the Ziegler drop-off. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi was unopposed April 4, yet he won more than 75,000 votes. Unopposed Dane County Judge Richard Niess won almost 59,000 votes.
In Dane County, Ziegler got just 53,726 votes.
This phenomenon repeated itself in a number of counties across the state. In Rock County, for instance, Ziegler’s total was below that of unopposed candidates for state Court of Appeals judge and for Circuit Court judge. In Winnebago County, Ziegler ran behind a pair of unopposed Circuit Court candidates and trailed unopposed Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris by almost 1,000 votes.
Why did so many voters skip a chance to vote for Ziegler? Why did almost 15,000 Wisconsinites go to the extra trouble of writing in the name of someone else — like defense lawyer and legal scholar Dean Strang — rather than voting for Ziegler?
Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm for Ziegler has less to do with this individual justice than it does with the general disrepute into which the once highly regarded Wisconsin Supreme Court has fallen.
Ziegler is a member of the corporate-aligned majority on the high court, which has embarked on a path of judicial activism that rejects ethical standards in favor of subservience to campaign donors and special-interest allies.
The court’s collapse as a functional branch of state government was confirmed last week when the five-member majority refused to abandon the practice of justices ruling on cases involving major financial backers.
The scandal-plagued majority’s actions have become such a source of shame for the Wisconsin judiciary that 54 retired judges asked the justices to adopt a new rule that would have erected a barrier to jurists taking up cases involving individuals and groups that played a critical role in getting them elected.
On Thursday, when the high court considered the petition, Ziegler led the majority in rejecting the plea from the judges for a restoration of ethical standards.
Ziegler, who ran unopposed this year in large part because of broad recognition that her special-interest backers would spend freely to keep her on the bench, asserted: "The petitioners here have asked us to do something that does not comport with the constitution as I view it.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a nationally respected legal scholar, rejected Ziegler’s fantasy, saying: "I see nothing in the Wisconsin Constitution or the U.S. Constitution that says that this court can't make reasonable recusal rules.”
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley stood with Abrahamson on behalf of judicial ethics, transparency and impartiality. At the very least, she argued, the court should consider the issues raised by the petition from the retired judges. “The issue is so important that to shut it down without a hearing undermines the public confidence that is so important for this court,” she said. “At least give people a chance to be heard. What is so threatening about that? I think a public hearing is absolutely essential in this case.”
But Zeigler’s cabal rejected even that common-sense argument — and in so doing accomplished what had not seemed possible. They actually lowered the standing of a Supreme Court that Wisconsinites are coming to recognize not as a chamber of justice but a den of iniquity.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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