A measure designed to reduce the politics associated with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and its elections took a large step forward Saturday when the State Bar elected to support it.
The Wisconsin State Bar’s Board of Governors decided, during their two-day meeting in Trego, to support a 16-year, single-term limit for Supreme Court Justices, and to get rid of a provision in the state Constitution that allows justices to run for an unlimited number of 10-year terms.
The term-limit proposal, if everything goes as the supporters plan, will be introduced as a bill during the current legislative session. If the bill passes, it would then have to go through the next session – which begins in 2015. After that, supporters hope for it to end up on a voting ballot to change the state’s Constitution as early as 2017.
Thirty-seven of the 41 members present elected to support the term limits. The dissenting voters were bar President Patrick Fiedler, President-elect Robert Gagan, past President Kevin Klein and BOG member Margaret Hickey, according to those at the meeting.
Members of the bar-created Judicial Task Force, which drafted the proposal after studying the issue for the better part of two years, have said the BOG’s support is imperative if the measure has any chance of success.
Hickey said she voted against the measure because of her concern “about the judiciary being a co-equal branch.”
“If we have term limits on justices and we have no term limits on the governor’s office or legislature,” she said, “I do believe that will affect how the judicial branch is viewed and its ability to function.”
But others, such as BOG member Ray Dall’Osto, said they supported the measure to at least advance the issue. He said he felt that the issue should “at least … be put out for debate.”
The term limits were proposed as a way to ensure the justices worry more about the opinions and decisions they have to make, instead of have to run for office or worry about their counterparts’ election, according to the task force’s report.
Task force Chair Joe Troy, said Saturday afternoon that he was incredibly happy about the overwhelming support the BOG showed with their vote.
“I’m very proud of the Board of Governors,” Troy said.
His elation came after an impassioned plea for support that he and other task force made to the BOG on Friday on Friday. Troy told the governors that delaying a vote would only delay the “action for pretty far down the road.”
“If we don’t have a shot at presenting this in this legislative session, nothing can happen until the new leg begins in January 2015,” Troy said on Friday. “It would potentially be cooling our heels for a year and a half.”
The proposal, if voted into the state Constitution, would at least address the issue of money in campaigns, even if it wouldn’t completely do away with it. Justices would still have to run for office, but fewer elections may mean fewer chances to influence the court.
“They’re in a mess I think they can’t get themselves out of,” task force member Tom Shriner said to the board on Friday. “There is a constant election and reelection [cycle, and] finding colleagues to run against [the justices].
“In a nutshell, we would like to get the focus of attention back on the court itself,” he continued. “It isn’t about them, it’s about the court, and it’s about serving the needs of the people of Wisconsin.”