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View from around the state: Why independence is worth preserving

— From the Beloit Daily News

Political interests keep grasping for judicial control.

Those whose values in good government include an ethical, fair and independent judicial branch as a check on politicians should tell the governor and legislators to remove a provision in the Wisconsin budget prepared by the Walker administration.

For the second time the governor is trying to kill the independence of Wisconsin’s Judicial Commission and place it under the direct control of Supreme Court justices.

The commission is where complaints against judges go, including any complaints against justices of the Supreme Court. The commission handles about 500 complaints annually. It can reprimand or seek disciplinary action against judges if it finds misconduct. In recent years the commission has found evidence of misconduct by Supreme Court justices themselves — once when Justice Annette Ziegler was found to have a conflict of interest in a particular case, and again when Justice David Prosser put his hands around the neck of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley during a dispute. Maybe that explains the effort to grab control of the Commission.

Over several election cycles the Wisconsin Supreme Court has become more and more politicized. Outside groups — affiliated with the partisan political parties — have been spending enormous sums to elect the court that suits them. The danger in that was on full display during Supreme Court proceedings related to John Doe investigations sparked by political activities in the post-Act 10 recall elections. Cases came before the Supreme Court in which some of those under investigation had spent millions of dollars to elect the very justices sitting in judgment. Those justices were asked to recuse themselves. They did not, and then rendered judgments favorable to their campaign benefactors.

Bought-and-paid-for justice?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

But a reasonable person clearly might suspect the fairness and independence of the judiciary had been compromised.

And no one — Republican, Democrat or Independent — should want that perception to take root among the people.

So here we are again, with another proposal buried in the governor’s budget to undercut the independence of the Judicial Commission and place it on a leash held by Supreme Court justices increasingly elected in thinly-veiled partisan fashion.

Yet another way, in our view, modern politicians and their well-heeled benefactors are trying to extend partisan control over all branches of government to weaken constitutional checks and balances.

This also is worth pondering. Budget bills are supposed to be about fiscal matters. Policy and governmental structure and function considerations are supposed to be handled separately, on their individual merits. Governors and legislative leaders of both parties have tried to slide items into the budget that would not pass on their own. That’s not good government, no matter what party a governor represents.

Candidates always condemn the practice of sneaking policy matters into budget bills — Walker said so when he was a candidate. But then, as office-holders, governors of both parties eagerly violate their own pledges.

Most importantly, every citizen of Wisconsin should stand on the side of judicial independence. We still believe — perhaps naively, in these days of ugly partisan tribalism — that citizens are best served by judges who do not choose sides but rather apply the law as fair-minded referees committed only to justice.

An independent state Judicial Commission serves that cause. Leave it alone.

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