After ugly state Supreme Court contests that produced two of the most ethically challenged justices in Wisconsin history, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman, the anti-democracy crowd decided to blame the voters.
Rather than focus on the excesses of special-interest groups and abuses committed by irresponsible candidates, they argued that the people of Wisconsin were no longer capable of electing judges.
Their “solution”? Do away with elections and give the authority to select the most powerful jurists in the state to elite legal and political insiders under a scheme known as “merit selection.”
There was never any “merit” in the “merit selection” scam. It was just a strategy to give more power to those who are already too powerful.
Unfortunately, because special-interest groups and their political allies thwarted reform across several legislative sessions, the argument that it was impossible to repair judicial races started to gain traction.
Luckily, the real reformers did not buy into the lie. Common Cause in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign kept fighting for the fix that was needed: the Impartial Justice Act, which sets up a system to provide full public financing for qualifying Supreme Court candidates who voluntarily agree to abide by a spending limit of $400,000.
Common Cause’s tireless executive director, Jay Heck, kept pulling together honest jurists and legal scholars, specialists in campaign finance reform and engaged citizens for public forums and lobbying days. He was aided by the best of the state’s elected leaders, led by Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who kept pushing for the right reform even when many in the media and the political class declared the project a failure.
The 2006 and 2008 election cycles put more reform-minded Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly and Senate, making it possible for bipartisan majorities to pass the reform measure in both chambers this fall. And this week, with a signature from Gov. Jim Doyle, the Impartial Justice Act becomes law.
The act is not going to repair everything that is wrong with judicial elections in Wisconsin. But its enactment marks a significant stride in the right direction. And it proves that real reform is possible.
That’s important because it proves the proponents of false choices wrong.
It was always possible to fix the way in which Supreme Court justices are chosen while maintaining an open and democratic system of selection.