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John Nichols: Menacing politics in Wisconsin

John Nichols: Menacing politics in Wisconsin

Shirley Abrahamson (copy)

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, shown here listening to an oral argument Nov. 11, heads the Wisconsin Supreme Court because she is the senior member of the court. The Republican-controlled Legislature is pushing for approval of a constitutional amendment under which the chief would be elected by the members of the court.

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have been moving to place on the April 7 statewide ballot an amendment to the state constitution that would radically alter the way in which the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is selected. They seek not just to change long-standing rules but to upset an election result they did not like and to remove the winner of that election, Justice Shirley Abrahamson, from her position as chief justice.

This is pure politics. It's unsettling. And it demands a citizen response — in the form of a "no" vote on the amendment — to insulate the process of selecting the chief justice from the money and lobbying pressures that have so warped Wisconsin politics. Currently, the chief justice is selected by the people: The job goes to the senior member of the court and he or she retains the post for as long as the voters choose to keep that individual on the court. Under the scheme developed to remove Abrahamson — who was re-elected by a 59-41 margin in 2009 — the chief justice would be chosen by the justices in a closed vote that would invariably be influenced by partisanship, ideology and outside pressure.

What is being proposed is a step in precisely the wrong direction. Luckily, the people can check and balance the Legislature's attempt to politicize the selection of the chief justice.

Now, how about letting the people weigh in on the broader issue of our broken politics?

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling — an activist intervention that allowed corporate special interests to flood the political process with negative ads — state Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, and state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, introduced a resolution calling for a statewide advisory referendum that would allow voters to signal their support for a federal constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and get big money out of politics.

The referendum would read: "To allow all Americans to have an equal say in our democracy, shall Wisconsin’s congressional delegation support, and the Wisconsin Legislature ratify, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating: 1. Only human beings — not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations or similar associations — are endowed with constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore limiting political contributions and spending is not equivalent to restricting political speech.”

Already, 54 Wisconsin communities have endorsed similar proposals, as have roughly 600 communities nationwide and 16 states.

Subeck and Hansen want to place the referendum on the November 2016 statewide ballot. That's a good idea, as high turnout for the 2016 presidential contest will amplify the signal from the people.

But it's too bad this referendum won't be on the April 7, 2015, statewide ballot.

If it were, Wisconsinites could vote "no" to warping the process of selecting the chief justice in order to achieve blatantly political results, while at the same time voting "yes" to addressing the money-in-politics crisis that is warping all of our elections.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising

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