Q: Is it possible to remove judges from office in Wisconsin? Can a judge be removed from the bench by the governor? Legislature? What can be done by the citizenry?
A: According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, Wisconsin judges may be removed in one of four ways: By the Wisconsin Supreme Court, by recall, by legislative impeachment and by an obscure mechanism called address, which is similar to impeachment.
The Supreme Court can remove a judge on the recommendation of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and the Judicial Conduct Panel for cause or for disability. This mechanism, approved in 1977, has been used three times, according to the Judicial Commission, which enforces the state Code of Judicial Conduct.
In 1981, Iron County Circuit Judge Alex Raineri was stripped of his robe after his federal conviction for promoting prostitution by managing a Hurley bar that fronted for a prostitution service. In 1985, Rusk County Circuit Judge Donald Sterlinske was removed by the high court for falsifying and backdating court records, exerting influence on behalf of his daughter, intemperate courtroom conduct, misusing judicial powers and other misconduct.
The court also removed an unnamed judge for an undisclosed disability. That case remains confidential.
Judges also may be removed after impeachment by a majority vote of the state Assembly - 50 votes - and conviction by a two-thirds vote of the state Senate, or 22 votes.
In the case of Levi Hubbell, a founding member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In 1853, Hubbell lost a re-election bid to the high court and returned to the bench in Dane County.
That same year, Hubbell was accused in a lengthy trial of accepting bribes and hearing cases in which he had financial interests. Although he was acquitted by the Senate after an impeachment hearing, Hubbell resigned his office in 1856, complaining the pay was too low. Hubbell was appointed in 1871 as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, resigning four years later in the wake of a government patronage scandal.
The third mechanism for judicial removal is by recall election. Jeff Kuesel, managing attorney for the Legislative Reference Bureau, said a recall election can be triggered by citizens submitting signatures of qualified electors equal to 25 percent of the number of people who cast votes for governor in the last general election.
For circuit court judges, the number of signatures required is equal to 25 percent of the total votes cast for governor in that county; for a Supreme Court justice, it's 25 percent of the votes cast statewide.
In 2006, 2,161,700 people cast ballots for governor, meaning it would take 540,425 signatures today to start a recall election for a state Supreme Court justice. Said Kuesel: "It's a fairly high bar."
The first judicial-recall election ever held was in 1977, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Dane County citizens voted Judge Archie Simonson out of office in a recall election after the judge called rape a normal male reaction to provocative female attire. The statements came as Simonson sought to explain his decision to give probation to a 15-year-old boy found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl.
"To the best of our knowledge, there has been no other successful recall," said Tom Sheehan, a spokesman for the state court system.
Simonson was replaced by the election of Dane County's first female judge, Moria Krueger.
The fourth mechanism for recalling a judge in Wisconsin is by address. As described in statute and the state Constitution, address is similar to impeachment in that a complaint is heard by the Legislature, Kuesel said. After the address, a judge may be removed with the concurrence of two-thirds of the members of each house of the Legislature, he said.
Kuesel said it's unclear whether the fourth process ever has been invoked. "It's quite rare, if it was ever used at all."