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Panel delays push for 16-year term limits for justices

A State Bar committee charged with garnering support for a proposed constitutional amendment to limit Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to a single 16-year term has decided to alter its plan and delay a legislative push.

Joe Troy, one of the proposal’s authors and vice chairman of the bar’s Judicial Election Steering Committee, said the current plan is get a bill introduced in the Legislature in the next session, which begins January 2015. The bill must pass through two sessions before it can be given to the voters on an election ballot, and Troy said it could be introduced by 2018.

Originally, the plan was to have a bill be introduced during the current session and to try to put it on an election ballot in 2017. But Troy said the timeline was pushed back because the current legislative session ends in April, making it difficult to get a bill circulated for sponsors, heard and passed in a short period of time.

Combine that with upcoming elections that could affect the Legislature’s makeup, and Troy said the committee agreed that it would be feasible to try to get the idea introduced in January 2015, when the new Legislature will convene.

“We just felt like that as a practical matter, with the time that we had remaining and the focus on the November elections, it was better to let the dust settle on that and then pursue this,” Troy said.

The proposal – put forth by Troy and a task force after studying the issue for two years – was adopted as the bar’s policy position by the Board of Governors in September. At the time, Troy and the task force did their best to convey the urgency of adopting the policy as soon as possible, so the push for a constitutional amendment could begin as soon as possible.

According to the task force and other supporters, term limits could reduce some of the electioneering and special interest spending that increasingly has dominated the public’s perception of what should be a bench devoid of politics.

“Part of our goal is to demonstrate that it is politically neutral,” Troy said.

John Orton, a BOG member and chairman of the judicial steering committee, said the extra time will now be used to appeal to lawyers across the state. He and Troy said the committee plans to meet with bar associations and appeal to attorneys in as many specialties as possible.

The proposal isn’t without its critics, though. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, has said he thinks the 16-year term may dissuade older candidates from running for office. And Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said term limits might result in even more money pouring in to Supreme Court elections, since special interest groups will get only one shot to spend on elections.

Others, such as Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and the League of Women Voters, have shown interest in the proposal.

About Eric Heisig

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