On April 2, Wisconsin voters will go to the polls to elect a successor to retiring state Supreme Court Justice (chief justice from 1996 to 2015), Shirley Abrahamson. Spring, nonpartisan elections always see a much lower voter turnout than November, partisan elections; in past spring elections, turnout hovered at about 10 percent. However, last spring, voter turnout for the state Supreme Court election, won by Rebecca Dallet over Michael Screnock, saw a vast increase in voter turnout, to about 20 percent.
In addition to increased public attention on the election, the issue of Wisconsin's notoriously weak recusal rules for judicial candidates who receive either direct campaign contributions, or who benefit from election spending by "outside" special interest groups, became an important issue in that contest. Dallet favored stronger judicial recusal rules, Screnock opposed them.
Wisconsin currently ranks 47th of the 50 states in the strength of our judicial recusal rules. Even Illinois does a better job than Wisconsin in preventing the obvious conflict of interest that allows our state judges to rule in cases where they have been the beneficiaries of substantial campaign contributions from, or election spending by, a party before that judge in a trial.
Wisconsin's current recusal rule was written by two of Wisconsin's biggest special interest groups — Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association — in 2010 and it was adopted verbatim by the 5 to 2 conservative majority of the court. The rule said that judges themselves can decide to recuse themselves or not, with no threshold or standard to abide by.
This issue is just as important in 2019 as it was last year.
Many prominent retired Wisconsin jurists, including two former Wisconsin Supreme Court justices (Janine Geske, an appointee of Gov. Tommy Thompson, and Louis Butler, appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle) have called for stronger recusal rules for judges at all levels in Wisconsin. A 2017 petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court signed by Geske, Butler and 52 other retired jurists calling for stronger rules was rejected 5 to 2 by the conservative majority and, furthermore, the petitioners were denied even a public hearing on their proposal to the state's highest court.
The need for stronger judicial recusal rules is beginning to percolate as a significant issue in the weeks before the upcoming April 2 election. Both of the candidates for the state Supreme Court this year, chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Lisa Neubauer, and Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn, addressed this issue and other relevant matters in responding to the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin candidate questionnaire. Enter your address on the League's Vote411 website here to view their answers.
For why stronger judicial recusal rules and voter turnout are so important in this election and beyond for Wisconsin, read this recent Wisconsin State Journal op/ed column written by CC/WI executive director Jay Heck and League of Women Voters of Wisconsin executive director Erin Grunze.
Jay Heck is the director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.
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