From the Wisconsin State Journal. Sept. 8, 2011
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson recently indicated in a memo to her colleagues that she wants her Wisconsin Supreme Court to be more transparent.
That sounds like a good idea.
But more significantly, Abrahamson indicated a willingness to discuss whether high court justices should continue to be elected in nasty and partisan multimillion-dollar campaigns.
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Wisconsin’s high court should absolutely have an honest and open debate over the bipartisan push in the Legislature to end state Supreme Court elections. These ugly judicial elections, driven by shadowy special interest groups with lots at stake in future court decisions, are a huge contributor to our high court’s embarrassing dysfunction.
It was bad enough that the quality and experience of court candidates has been slipping over the last decade as judicial campaigns have become more vicious and money-soaked. It was bad enough that public distrust in court decisions has fallen just as partisan squabbles and 4-3 votes have increased.
But now we actually have court members getting into physical altercations. This includes one justice allegedly applying a chokehold, a second justice getting in the face of the first justice and allegedly shaking her fist, and a third justice saying the second justice bonked him on the head.
It sounds more like a “Three Stooges” episode than the highest court in Wisconsin carefully and dispassionately deciding sensitive and complicated legal disputes.
Wisconsin’s wild and bruising judicial elections soil even the reputations of the winning candidates. They create hard feelings and suspicion both on and off the court.
Abrahamson supported appointing high court justices based on merit in 1973, when she served on a special task force appointed by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey. She and other leading citizens on the task force deemed it the best way to ensure an independent and impartial high court. Three years later, Lucey appointed Abrahamson to fill a vacancy on the court as its first female member.
But after enjoying incumbency and winning subsequent elections, Abrahamson decided judicial elections were best.
We hope her recent memo indicates renewed interest in merit selection — a big reform that’s badly needed to restore trust in high court decisions.