April 2 is less than three months away, when Wisconsin voters will decide the outcome of a critical Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson is retiring, and her seat on the court is up for grabs. Deep-pocketed specialinterest groups are preparing to spend millions of dollars to dictate the outcome of this election. And then, another critical Wisconsin Supreme Court election will be at stake in April 2020. That race could determine the ideological composition of the court and the direction Wisconsin will take for years to come.
The approximately 20 percent of eligible people who participate in the state Supreme Court election last April was considered unusually high. A significant issue in that election last April was whether or not Wisconsin judges at all levels should be forced to abide by reasonable recusal rules when they are the beneficiary of campaign contributions or outside spending by special-interest groups. Wisconsin currently has the 47th weakest recusal rules in the nation. In 2018, the candidate favoring stronger recusal rules won election to the state high court.
Essentially, we have no rules now. The current recusal standard in Wisconsin leaves it up to judges to decide if they should recuse themselves or not. This rule was written by one of Wisconsin’s biggest special-interest groups — Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce – and was adopted as written by WMC, verbatim, by a narrow 4-to-3 majority in 2010. Even Illinois has stronger recusal rules than we do.
Two years ago, 54 retired jurists, including two former state Supreme Court justices, petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt specific and sensible recusal standards, but they were rebuffed and rejected by the majority on the court, which denied even a public hearing on the matter. That is outrageous and an insult to all Wisconsinites.
As the spring election draws nearer, Wisconsinites should keep in mind that transformational change for the good is possible if they vote in spite of the obstacles that have been erected to make the basic duties of citizens more difficult. They should demand basic accountability and transparency by way of stronger recusal rules from their judiciary.
Brian Hagedorn and Lisa Neubauer are on the ballot this April to replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Call them to demand they support stronger recusal rules from their judiciary and keep special interest groups off the bench.