Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet has presided over at least one case involving attorneys from her husband’s law firm despite a self-imposed rule not to do so that she has touted during her campaign for Supreme Court.
Dallet this week also recused herself from three recent cases on her docket involving attorneys from the Husch Blackwell law firm after being asked about them by the Wisconsin State Journal. In the last seven years, Dallet has been assigned to six cases involving attorneys from the firm that were resolved with little or no action, or were transferred to Dallet after a decision in the case had been entered by another judge.
Wisconsin’s Code of Judicial Conduct does not preclude Dallet from presiding over cases involving her husband’s law firm, but Dallet has repeatedly said on the campaign trail she made a point not to do so to ensure the public’s trust in the court.
“I have 1,000 cases; when it comes to my attention, (I recuse),” Dallet said in an interview this week.
Dallet said that when she started overseeing cases in the court’s civil division in 2015, she sought advice and was told she didn’t have to recuse herself from such cases. She decided whether to recuse on a case-by-case basis.
“So at the very beginning when I got to (the civil division), I tried to navigate what was appropriate so at the very beginning there may have been a couple of cases that I tried hanging on to,” she said. “And then I realized quickly what was more important is (that) I maintain the appearance of fairness to everyone so it never looked like I was doing anything to better my own interest, which would be my husband’s interest or my interest.”
Amy Wochos, Milwaukee County Court senior administrator, said cases are randomly assigned to judges and Dallet would not have been notified of case information — including attorney information — until action was taken in those cases. Two of the three cases Dallet recused herself from this week had no action.
In addition to the foreclosure case Dallet presided over, six other cases assigned to her involved attorneys from her husband’s law firm since 2011. Five were transferred to Dallet after another judge made a decision, dismissed without a court appearance, or the attorney withdrew from the case within a couple of months, according to public court records compiled by the Republican Party of Wisconsin and verified by the Wisconsin State Journal. In a seventh case, Dallet recused herself last month.
Dallet has built her campaign largely on her experience as a longtime judge in Milwaukee County who has sat on more than 10,000 cases in 10 years, and on the value she places on judges and justices recusing themselves from cases involving conflicts of interest.
She has criticized Justices Michael Gableman and David Prosser for not recusing themselves from cases involving an investigation into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with third-party groups that had spent millions to help get both justices elected.
Dallet has said that decision not to recuse and a 2017 vote by the court’s conservative majority to reject a proposal from retired judges that would have required judges and justices to recuse from cases involving top campaign donors, has damaged the public’s trust in the court’s ability to be fair.
But Republicans say Dallet’s violation of her own rule, and the fact that she has presided over 102 cases involving 39 attorneys who have contributed a combined $21,100 to her Supreme Court campaign, are evidence of hypocrisy.
“This is proof Rebecca Dallet would like a special set of rules for her, and another for everyone else. While offering up lip service to voters on her recusal policy she has simultaneously built her campaign war-chest on donors who appeared before her court and flaunted the very rules she has campaigned on,” Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said.
The attorneys’ donation amounts range between $200 to $2,500. Judges and Supreme Court candidates who are judges commonly receive donations from attorneys.
Dallet’s campaign provided one example of when Dallet ruled against the interests of an attorney who was a campaign donor, and a spokeswoman said there were many more examples.
Impartiality questions raised for Screnock
Dallet’s campaign pushed back against the Republican criticism and said there’s far more evidence that opponent Michael Screnock, a Sauk County judge, would decide cases on a partisan basis. The two emerged from a February primary and square off in the April 3 election.
“Big-monied special interests can continue to attack Judge Dallet’s fair and independent record but Wisconsinites won’t forget the million dollars they’ve already spent to put rubber stamp Michael Screnock on the Supreme Court,” Dallet campaign spokeswoman Jessica Lovejoy said.
The Supreme Court race is officially nonpartisan, but support for Dallet and Screnock is divided along party lines with liberals getting behind Dallet and conservatives for Screnock.
Screnock’s spokesman Sean Lansing said Screnock has not presided over cases involving attorneys who have contributed to his Supreme Court campaign, or involving attorneys who are related to Judge Screnock, or have a close business relationship with him.
But Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director for liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, raised questions about whether Screnock would recuse himself from cases involving issues Screnock has defended in court as a lawyer or related to Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed him in 2015, or Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which purchased $313,500 in advertising on Screnock’s behalf a week before the primary last month, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The state GOP has also provided more than $100,000 in in-kind contributions to him.
Lansing noted Screnock has repeatedly said he would recuse from a case if he determined he could not remain impartial, which the state’s judicial code of conduct requires.
“As Judge Screnock has said many times, impartiality is the touchstone of our judicial system, and recusal must be determined on a case-by-case basis, taking all of the facts of the respective issue before the court into account,” Lansing said.
Under Wisconsin’s Code of Judicial Conduct, judges must recuse themselves from cases if the judge or the judge’s spouse is a party to the proceeding, is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding, is known by the judge to have a more than minor interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding or is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.
Richard Flamm, an ethics expert who has written a book on judicial recusal, said Dallet didn’t violate the code. He added, “The fact that attorneys who work with a judge’s spouse have appeared before her could, in some circumstances, cause a reasonable person to question her ability to be impartial — especially if the case they handled was so important to the firm that her decision, one way or another, could have an impact on her spouse’s finances (and, therefore, on her own).”
New York University School of Law professor Stephen Gillers said unless a court has a rule that requires recusal from matters in which a lawyer for a party has donated above a specific amount to a judge’s campaign, recusal is not ordinarily required. In Dallet’s case, he said it’s fair to review her recusal record if she has made it a key part of her campaign.