The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has petitioned the state Supreme Court to enact a rule that would require judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving major campaign contributors. We believe this is an excellent idea.
The league's petition is particularly timely, coming on the heels of two high court campaigns in the state involving millions of dollars in spending and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a West Virginia case that excessive spending can indeed be construed to influence a judge's decision.
Under the league's petition, judges and justices would be required to step down in cases where either of the litigants had contributed $1,000 or more to their election campaigns within the past two years. The only quibble we would have with the league's position is that two years after an election may not be long enough.
For instance, only last year Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler wrote an opinion that blatantly favored Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in a case in which the lobbying group had a stake. The ruling, a 4-3 decision, came just a year after WMC had spent $2 million on Ziegler's election campaign. Clearly she should be required to step down in any case involving the WMC for her entire 10-year term.
"We need clear rules to protect our judiciary from the perception that judges are beholden to those who help get them elected," the league has told the court.
Wisconsin's justices will hear the petition Oct. 28. On the same day, the court will hear from two other groups -- the Wisconsin Realtors Association and WMC itself -- that campaign contributions and independent expenditures on issue ads should not be grounds for recusal. This is a nonsensical position in a time when our democracy is threatened by out-of-control campaign spending and influence peddling.
We hope the court dismisses the WMC and Realtors' petitions and takes favorable action on the League of Women Voters' request. It's needed to convince the public that our judicial system is not for sale.
What would be better yet is for the state Legislature to pass the long-pending impartial justice bill, which would provide public financing for Supreme Court elections. That would not only stifle the need for outlandish campaign spending, but would reduce the need for petitions like the one the league has felt compelled to make.