In an attempt to make the Wisconsin Supreme Court more nonpartisan, the Wisconsin State Bar is in the early stages of a potential push to limit state justices to single, 16-year terms.
The State Bar’s Judicial Task Force, a four-member group put together by former State Bar President Jim Brennan, came up with the recommendation as a result of Brennan’s request for the group to look at ways to “restore confidence in the courts again,” said Christine Bremer Muggli, a member of the task force.
Eliminating re-election concerns “gives the judge independence,” Muggli said.
“It leads to independence of thought, independence of decisions,” said attorney Joe Troy, the task force’s leader. “I don’t think the justices are motivated by certain interests, but there’s a perception by the public that they are, and that’s what matters.”
Wisconsin elects justices to 10-year terms, with no limit on the number of times one can be re-elected.
The task force presented its recommendation at the State Bar’s Board of Governor’s meeting Wednesday, and will present the information again at its next meeting in September, Muggli said, when new BOG members are present. At that time, she said, the Board could take a vote on whether or not to move forward with gathering legislative support for the push.
If the measure did eventually become law, she said, current state justices would have the opportunity to run for one more term, this time for 16 years.
Andrea Gage, the State Bar’s public relations coordinator, said it was too early to tell if the board would vote in September on the task force’s report. Gage said the task force was commissioned to study policy issues surrounding the state Supreme Court.
Janine Geske, who was on the court for five years in the 1990s and now is a law professor at Marquette University, said the proposal puts too little stock into the value of experience. Often the most effective judges, she said, are the ones who have sat on the bench the longest.
“There are issues among members on the court,” she said. “I don’t think the answer is to take experience off the court.”
The proposal also would lead to the possibility of the bench being occupied by lame ducks, Geske said. Some lawyers might try to delay bringing cases before the court if they know that a new judge will replace one who is likely to look unfavorably on whatever arguments they plan to present.
Muggli predicted the earliest the potential change could take effect would be 2016.
The move would have to be the result of a constitutional amendment, which requires the support of both Republicans and Democrats, Troy noted. Though the effort started with the State Bar, he said, “there are many other constituencies that we know we need to have to have this be successful.”
When Brennan about a year ago commissioned the task force to look at Wisconsin’s judicial system, Muggli said, it was after the state had been through Supreme Court elections that “were partisan and difficult for people.”
The task force looked at how other states handle state Supreme Court terms, Muggli said, and found that 16 years was an average length of time justices across the country serve.
“We looked very closely,” Troy said, “at what might be politically feasible in these difficult times that we live in. Out of that came a conviction that we needed to do something quite different than what’s being done in other states.”
“The more closely we looked at it,” he added, “the more we felt it had tremendous merit. It’s good public policy that could earn support from all sides.”
Law Journal staff writer Dan Shaw also contributed to this report.