Take back jus­tice from money’s grip

Wisconsin Gazette - - Editorial -

One of the state’s great­est eth­i­cal flaws is the ab­sence of a rule re­quir­ing Wis­con­sin Supreme Court jus­tices to re­cuse them­selves in cases in­volv­ing their ma­jor cam­paign donors.

It’s bad enough our high­est court is dom­i­nated by judges who’ve al­ready been com­pro­mised by ac­cept­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from spe­cial in­ter­est groups. They also can sit in judg­ment on cases in­volv­ing those same groups and the wealthy peo­ple be­hind them.

A na­tional le­gal ex­pert told The New Yorker the lack of a re­cusal rule had turned “one of the na­tion’s most re­spected state tri­bunals into a dis­grace­ful mess.”

The rule to have no con­flict-of-in­ter­est rule was not writ­ten by elected of­fi­cials, but rather by two of the state’s big­gest Repub­li­can bankrollers — Wis­con­sin Man­u­fac­tur­ers and Com­merce and the Wis­con­sin Real­tors As­so­ci­a­tion. The court’s Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity, all of whom re­ceived money from those groups, adopted their rec­om­men­da­tion seven years ago.

In Jan­uary, 54 re­tired Wis­con­sin judges from across the political spec­trum de­cided that some­thing must be done about the sit­u­a­tion.

The re­tired judges submitted a pe­ti­tion to the high court that said: “As money in elec­tions be­comes more pre­dom­i­nant, cit­i­zens right­fully ask whether jus­tice is for sale. The ap­pear­ance of par­tial­ity that large cam­paign do­na­tions cause strikes at the heart of the ju­di­cial func­tion, which de­pends on the pub­lic’s re­spect for its judg­ments.”

The solution re­quested by the pe­ti­tion­ers was mod­est: to es­tab­lish a ceil­ing for the amount of money a jus­tice can take with­out re­cusal.

In April, the court voted down the pro­posal 5-2, along well-paid-for party lines.

In high dud­geon, Jus­tice Re­becca Bradley — who was fast-tracked onto the court by Scott Walker and the same groups that wrote the of­fen­sive rule — ex­plained her vote against the pe­ti­tion: “Ev­ery judge and jus­tice in Wis­con­sin should be highly of­fended by this pe­ti­tion be­cause it at­tacks their in­tegrity.”

On the con­trary, ev­ery ra­tio­nal Wis­con­si­nite should be of­fended that their high­est court wants to leave open a door to cor­rup­tion, un­der­min­ing the pub­lic’s be­lief that jus­tice, not political fa­vors, is be­ing served.

The re­cent at­tempts by Com­mon Cause, the League of Women Vot­ers of Wis­con­sin and the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Women to en­cour­age cit­i­zens of the state to dis­cuss ju­di­cial ethics are praise­wor­thy.

But as it stands, it would take a mir­a­cle to elect a jus­tice next year who’s not un­der obli­ga­tion to the right-wing cor­po­rate agenda. The Big Busi­ness groups and their dark-money political ac­tion com­mit­tees ap­pear to have lim­it­less fi­nan­cial re­sources — WMC and Wis­con­sin Club for Growth spent more than $10 mil­lion be­tween 2007 and 2014 on ads to elect the court’s right-wing ma­jor­ity.

That money will al­low non­stop ad cam­paigns against any can­di­date they can’t count on. Those ads will pro­mul­gate dis­torted truths and lies that will be am­pli­fied by their right-wing me­dia part­ners. Their pro­pa­ganda ma­chine is savvy and well-oiled.

The only per­son who can turn the tide on their reign of greed and cor­rup­tion is you. Wake up, Wis­con­sin. While you were sleep­ing, your courts were sold to the high­est bid­ders. Take back jus­tice for the peo­ple who right­fully own the state — you.

To learn more about the re­cusal is­sue, con­tact Com­mon Cause at 608-256-2686 or email ccwisjwh@itis.com.

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