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Justices divided over decision not to reappoint Judicial Commission head

Milwaukee attorney John Dawson, head of the commission working to discipline state Justice David Prosser, won’t be returning once his term expires Aug. 1.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday voted not to re-appoint Dawson, chairman of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, for what would have been a third term.

The commission filed a complaint against Prosser in March and an ethics case is pending.

The decision not to reappoint Dawson was the result of a 4-3 vote by the justices. In a letter released Friday, the three dissenting justices — Chief Shirley Abrahamson, Ann Walsh Bradley and Patrick Crooks — said they opposed the decision not to reappoint Dawson and that he met all the criteria to continue serving on the commission.

In their letter, which was signed by all three dissenting justices, Abrahamson, Bradley and Crooks noted the commission’s role in the Prosser ethics issue, and why they wanted Dawson renewed for another term.

“Appointments to the Judicial Commission are especially sensitive now,” the letter states. “… One complaint is awaiting appointment of a panel. … Under these circumstances your reappointment by the court would have promoted public confidence in the integrity of the Judicial Commission and the integrity and impartiality of the Supreme Court.”

Justice Patience Roggensack said the decision was based strictly on the fact that commission members typically rotate off after six years, in accordance with state statute.

“I was shocked that the chief would put out a letter like that,” she said. “It sounds like we don’t think well of him and there was something wrong with him. That is not the case.”

Dawson, a retired attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP, started his initial three-year term three months late and would have been eligible for another three-year reappointment, as he will have served five years, nine months.

“It would have been an honor to continue to serve,” he said. “I can’t speak for any of the justices, but I’m sure they had a good reason.”

While Dawson said he would have served another term, Roggensack said nine years is too long for members to continuously serve.

She also questioned the value of publicizing the court’s decision in a letter.

“It was totally inappropriate,” Roggensack said. “Why the chief took such a hard line, I have no idea.”
Abrahamson, Bradley and Crooks declined to comment beyond the contents of the letter.

Prosser said just because Dawson hadn’t served six full years, he is not entitled to reappointment.

Prosser said the decision not to reappoint was based on the statutory limits and the inevitable turnover that comes with being a member of the commission.

“The idea that Mr. Dawson was treated unfairly after serving almost six years,” Prosser said, “is simply not correct.”

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