SCROW-COVER-MARCH-05-03172016163453 (copy) (copy)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court justices meet in their hearing room in the Capitol building in this file photo from March 2016.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out a proposal to create formal recusal rules for judges and justices in the state.

The court voted 5-2 Thursday, with Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley opposed, to dismiss and deny a 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 vote fell along ideological lines, with the court's conservative-leaning majority voting to throw the petition out and the liberal-leaning wing voting to hold a public hearing on it, or adopt it immediately.

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.

It proposed specific contribution thresholds for when a judge or justice would have to recuse himself or herself from a case. Supreme Court justices would have been required to remove themselves if they received $10,000 from a group or individual with a case in front of the court. The amount for a Court of Appeals judge to recuse would have been for a contribution of $2,500; the limit would have been $1,000 for a circuit court judge and $500 for a municipal court judge.

Justice Annette Ziegler, who was re-elected to the court earlier this month for another 10-year term and ran unopposed, said the petition undermines the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions.

“The petitioners here have asked us to do something that doesn’t comport with the Constitution as I view it,” Ziegler said. “Is there precedent that supports this somehow? And the answer is no.”

There were more than 60 comments on the petition submitted to the court. That high degree of public interest warrants a public hearing on the issue, said Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be addressed, but at least give people an option to hear it. What is so threatening about that? What is so threatening about hearing what people in this state want to tell us?” she said.

Justice Rebecca Bradley said the premise of the petition is false and an affront to the oath taken by Supreme Court justices and judges statewide.

“We cannot consider the petition,” she said. “To do so violates the oath that each of us took when we took our office.”

It also disenfranchises voters statewide who should be free to contribute to judicial candidates without repercussions, she said.

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“It asks us to infringe the First Amendment rights of the people of Wisconsin who wish to support candidates,” she said.

The petitioners, along with Abrahamson and Walsh Bradley, dispute that the proposal would infringe on the First Amendment.

Abrahamson called for a public hearing on the petition and Walsh Bradley called for it to be adopted immediately. Both motions were voted down after some discussion, which was tense at times. 

The two liberal-leaning justices said that the amount of public interest generated by the petition warranted a hearing.

“The issue is so important and to shut it down without a hearing and without comment just undermines the public trust and confidence that is so important for the integrity of this court,” said Walsh Bradley. “It goes to the heart of who we are as a court and what we believe.”


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.