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View from around the state: Keep court oversight free of bias, conflict

— From The Journal Times of Racine

Independent oversight of Wisconsin’s judges and court commissioners is at risk in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed new state budget.

The governor, citing potential but unspecified “administrative efficiencies,” has asked the state Legislature to remove the independent standing of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and instead put it, and its budget, under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court.

The commission is charged with investigating complaints against state judges — and that includes Supreme Court justices. Each year, the Judicial Commission reviews 400 to 500 complaints against judges and court commissioners and, if it finds probable cause of misconduct, either issues a warning or seeks disciplinary action from a three-judge panel.

The panel’s recommendations go to the state Supreme Court, which is the ultimate arbiter in deciding whether a judge or commissioner is reprimanded, suspended, censure or removed from office.

It is of note that in the past decade, the Judicial Commission has alleged misconduct against sitting high court justices three times — one of which resulted in a Supreme Court reprimand against Justice Annette Ziegler for failing to avoid conflict of interests when she was a circuit judge in Washington County. Ziegler had presided over nearly a dozen cases involving a West Bend Bank when her husband was on the board of the bank.

In perhaps the most notorious case, the Judicial Commission recommended action against Justice David Prosser for allegations that he placed his hands on the neck of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley during a heated argument. Seven justices were present at the mini-melee and after Prosser called on them to recuse themselves because they were witnesses, the high court couldn’t reach a decision because it lacked a quorum.

Suffice to say that such pesky complaints by the Judicial Commission would probably dwindle if the Judicial Commission was placed under the control of the high court itself. Instead of a judicial watchdog, the Judicial Commission would lose its independence, and its teeth, and become a cozy lapdog for the court.

But the Legislature doesn’t have to listen to us — they should listen to the Commission itself. Earlier this month, the nine-member Judicial Commission urged lawmakers to oppose Walker’s proposed change.

“The proposed budget degrades the independence of the Judicial Commission by transferring the budgeting and position authority over the Commission from the Legislature to the Supreme Court,” commission executive director Jeremiah Van Hecke warned.

It should also be noted, the Judicial Commission is not made up of a partisan left-wing cabal operating out of some cellar in the City of Madison: five of the commission’s members were appointed by Gov. Walker. The other four were appointed by the state Supreme Court.

They see what we see — that putting the commission under the aegis of the high court would not only jeopardize fair and even-handed judicial oversight, it would pose real conflicts of interest for both the Supreme Court and the commission members.

The Legislature should pull this proposal from the budget and keep the oversight of Wisconsin’s court as free and independent as practicable.

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