The Wisconsin State Bar’s Board of Governors is expected to decide this week whether to support a measure that would limit state Supreme Court justices to a single, 16-year term.
The proposed change, which would require a constitutional amendment, seeks to remove some of the politics and money from an election process that is rife with them, according to a report distributed Monday in advance of this Friday and Saturday’s Board of Governors meeting in Trego.
The proposal and report were put together by the bar’s Judicial Task Force, a four-person group created by former bar President Jim Brennan.
The BOG initially discussed the proposal in June and is expected to take a vote on it at this week’s meeting.
Changing from a system that requires justices to run every 10 years would help restore some public confidence, the report states, in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan branch of government.
“When elected justices no longer face the prospect of gearing up for an engaging in reelection campaigns,” the report states, “the members of the court will lose all reason to lobby, either publicly or privately, for their colleagues’ reelection success or defeat.”
“Tensions among the members of the court are likely thereby to be reduced and collegiality enhanced.”
If the BOG votes to support the proposal, it would put the measure on a fast track, said Joe Troy, one of the proposal’s authors and a member of the task force. The bar’s support could help facilitate legislative support, he said, and ideally a bill would be introduced in the Legislature during the current session and put it in front of the voters in the next few years. Troy acknowledged that schedule “could well to be too ambitious,” however.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, through courts spokesman Tom Sheehan, sent an emailed statement Wednesday saying she applauded the bar’s efforts.
“The idea of a single 16-year term for Supreme Court justices and other ideas need to be explored,” the statement reads. “Something needs to be done to address the problems created by large sums of money being expended in judicial campaigns and the public concern – real or perceived – that money affects judicial decision making.”
Messages left for the other justices were not immediately returned.
How BOG members will vote remains to be seen. Bar President Patrick Fiedler said Tuesday he is going to “keep an open mind” as he reads the report and listens to the debate.
BOG member Ray Dall’Osto said he is on the fence about the issue. The money that pours into the races is a cause for concern, he said, but changing the system may “take away the benefit of having experience and a long term justice on there.”
Others have already made up their mind. BOG member Brian Anderson said he will vote for the measure, unless convinced otherwise by his fellow governors.
“The biggest public concerns are the … money that goes into the races these days,” Anderson said. “I don’t think that will necessarily by avoided, but the main thrust of the recommendation is to try to avoid the justices having to defend the decisions they make while they’re on the Supreme Court.”
The report, which also details how other states handle their supreme court appointments and elections, notes that there only has been one incumbent Wisconsin justice that lost an election: Chief Justice George Currie, who was part of a 1966 decision to allow the Milwaukee Braves baseball team to move to Atlanta. More recently, former Justice Louis Butler, who was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, ran for election in 2008 and lost.
Troy said he already is planning for the next steps by reaching out to legislators who could support the bill. He declined to name any specific legislators.
Troy said he is aware of a bill that will push for a merit selection system, instead. That competing measure may be proposed in the next few weeks, said Todd Allbaugh, chief of staff for Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center.
But, as the task force report notes, Troy said most merit selection systems also require justices to run for reelections.
Troy said he believes the term-limit proposal is “a very straightforward approach.”
“At least it removes that concern,” Troy said, “that the justice that’s elected is making a decision out of concern for their own reelection.
Single terms also would offer, he said, a way to keep discourse on the bench fresh.
“To me, there’s something healthy of some gradual change of the composition,” Troy said. “Not drastic, not radical, not frequent, but some evolution of perspective on the court is a healthy thing.”