Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, first introduced legislation in September 2011 to abolish state Supreme Court elections for an appointment process based on merit. That proposal died in committee when the session adjourned in March 2012, but now the senators are preparing similar legislation to introduce in September.
Though the legislative proposal is not final, Cullen said Wednesday that it’s in the final draft stages and will likely focus on changing just the state Supreme Court process, instead of also working to overhaul state Court of Appeals judicial selection. The 2011 legislation sought to implement merit selection for both courts.
“I think we ought to just focus on the Supreme Court,” Cullen said.
Schultz could not immediately be reached for comment.
As with the 2011 proposal, Cullen said campaign spending concerns are the impetus for the renewed push to abolish high court elections.
“Supreme Court races are like legislative races, but they’re not in the same branch,” he said. “There’s a ton of money spent on negative ads. No one talks about the job you’d actually be doing on the court. It never enters the discussion.”
State Justice Pat Roggensack, who successfully ran for reelection this spring, argued that is not the case, however. She said a candidate’s merit is as much a factor in elections as appointments.
“Merit selections are political appointments, but that doesn’t sound as good, does it?” she said. “Appointed versus elected, you get merit both ways.”
Roggensack said limiting or eliminating elections would take a constitutional right away from the voters.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said. “The voters haven’t done anything wrong. Why would we take that away from them?”
Twenty-four states use bipartisan commissions to select their Supreme Court justices, according to Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Justice at Stake.
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s four-member Judicial Task Force in June presented its plan to limit state Supreme Court justices to single, 16-year terms.. Wisconsin currently elects justices to 10-year terms, with no re-election limits.
By taking away the possibility of re-election, the plan’s backers seek to eliminate suspicions that a justice ruled a certain way to avoid offending powerful supporters, said Joe Troy, leader of the Judicial Task Force.
But Roggensack argued that she has never seen a fellow justice vote in a way that she thought was influenced by political donation.
“You don’t get a vote for a contribution,” she said. “You just don’t.”
Troy said Wednesday that he applauded the senators’ efforts to deal with “the problem of the influence of politics and money on Supreme Court elections.”
Troy said it remains to be seen, however, if the senators’ plan will call for retention elections, which would raise many of the same concerns that already exist.
Cullen said he and Schultz “go round and round” about that aspect of the plan.
“I don’t like the idea of a retention election because the money machine still starts on day one then, because they’d have to run in 10 years,” Cullen said. “It doesn’t fix the problem.”
Cullen said he favors lifetime appointments or a reappointment process.
Though he said he is not optimistic about the legislation’s chances in the current legislature, Cullen said he’s taking the long view.
“Big issues sometime take a few sessions,” he said, noting that it took several sessions to pass nonsmoking legislation and to change the state’s drinking age.
Either proposal would require a change to the Wisconsin Constitution, which requires the support of both Republicans and Democrats.