By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Our View: League's proposal on justices has merit
Placeholder Image
Avoiding any appearance of a conflict of interest is important in any decision made by a public official. Even more so in rulings from a court of law.

Unfortunately, big campaign dollars have tainted the credibility of the Wisconsin Supreme Court the past few years. It's time something is done to reverse that regrettable trend.

In the past, we have advocated for public financing of judicial campaigns in Wisconsin; also for the idea of appointing, rather than electing, state justices. The Wisconsin League of Women Voters has an interesting proposal that's being debated vociferously this week and might be worth instituting.

The League is asking the court to amend its judicial code to prevent justices from hearing cases that involve parties, lawyers or law firms that have donated to the judge's election campaign.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is fighting that proposal. It's proposing that judges would not be required to step aside from cases involving groups or individuals no matter how much they spent to help their campaigns.

It should be no surprise. The WMC contributed millions of dollars to help elect two court justices, Michael Gableman and Annette Ziegler, in the past few years. Gableman's campaign received $1.76 million from the business group, while Ziegler received $2.2 million. Their elections have swung the court from liberal-leaning to slightly conservative.

Does it create at least an appearance of a conflict of interest to have a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice ruling on a case that involves a million-dollar campaign contributor? Certainly!

Such conflicts must be avoided. That's why such donations should no longer be allowed in judicial campaigns.

The League's proposal still would allow the donations, it just wouldn't allow the judges who receive them to rule in cases involving the donors. That seems like a reasonable, positive step forward in the much-needed campaign finance reform of judicial elections.

Predictably, Justice Gabelman was critical of the League's proposal during Wednesday's hearing. He was described by the Associated Press as "downright hostile to the group." Gableman attacked the League as a left-wing group trying to limit campaign speech and have government regulators, not voters, hold judges accountable for ethical lapses. As the Associated Press reported, Gableman scoffed at the idea that judges would "be willing to throw a case for $1,000."

But how about for a million dollars? That the question is legitimately asked is reason enough to end the stream of campaign dollars to judicial candidates from deep-pocketed special interests.

Would the WMC or any other group be less inclined to donate big money to candidates who would not be able to rule on their cases? We believe they would. For the sake of its own credibility and the public's trust in the judicial system, we urge the Supreme Court to add the provision to its codes.