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View from around the state: State’s courts shouldn’t be for sale

— From The Journal Times of Racine

Take the “For Sale” sign off Wisconsin’s courts.

That was the simple message last week from more than four dozen retired judges in the state as they asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider new rules that would require judges and justices to recuse themselves in cases involving parties or lawyers who spent money to help elect them.

It’s a good idea, and one that is direly needed now that campaign finance laws have been so riddled by cases like the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that gave corporations the free speech (and campaign spending) privileges of citizens, and recent state high court rulings that have undercut previous bans on politicians, including judges, from coordinating their campaigns with special interest groups.

Wisconsin used to have a judicial system that was widely immune from the high-spending influences of partisan politics, but the changes in the political landscape have put big dollars into play in our court system.

That has become particularly evident in races for the state Supreme Court, where outside interests have helped change the ideological and political slant of the court in recent years to give conservatives a 5-2 majority.

Going into last year’s high court race, special-interest groups using “issue ads” spent more than $13 million on state Supreme Court races over nine years, with conservative-leaning groups outspending liberal-leaning groups by a 2-to-1 margin.

That has had an impact on the partisan makeup of the high court, and on its rulings, as shown by its dismissal of the John Doe probe of conservative groups that supported Gov. Scott Walker’s political campaigns.

Under the state Supreme Court rules on recusal, which were adopted in 2010, donations by groups and individuals and independent spending don’t, by themselves, require judges to step aside from a case involving those parties. The decision is left to the judge.

Those Supreme Court rules on recusal don’t only affect the high-spending special-interest groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce in cases they may bring before the court, they extend down to the small cases involving ordinary citizens.

Who among us would like to go before a judge — no matter the reputation for fairness and impartiality — knowing that your legal opponent, or his/her attorney, has donated even a few hundred dollars to the judge’s election campaign?

Sidebar, Your Honor? Are you still accepting campaign donations?

The remedy proposed by the 54 retired judges is to require municipal judges to step aside in a case if they’ve received at least $500 from a litigant or attorney. For circuit court judges the threshold would be $1,000; for appellate judges, $2,500; and for high court justices, $10,000, which is half the individual donor limit for a justice.

The limits also would apply to issue advocacy groups, even if they have not directly contributed to a judicial campaign but clearly do work that influences the judge’s election — which would apply to groups running attack ads against an opposing judicial candidate.

Wisconsin’s judges and justices should be in the business of interpreting and upholding the law fairly and honestly, without regard to dollars flowing into their re-election campaigns.

The state Supreme Court should rewrite its rules and take the money bag off the scales of justice.

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