If the current system is broke let's not make it worse. Once again, the afternoon Progressive Dane newspaper is ringing the charity bell on behalf of its pet cause: taxpayer-financed elections.
Writes editor Dave Zweifel: "Legislation is pending to publicly finance Supreme Court elections, making it unnecessary for candidates to go begging for money and all the conflicts that presents."
Wrong on two counts!
1. Justice Ziegler got herself into an ethical jam but it had nothing to do with raising campaign money and everything to do with not offering to recuse herself in cases involving her husband's investment company.
2. Using tax dollars to fund Supreme Court elections will do exactly nothing to stop WMC or WEAC or any organization from spending what it wants to exercise its free speech rights.
Linda Clifford and the eventual winner, Annette Ziegler, together spent $2.7 million on their campaigns. But that ignores the $3.1 million spent on the Ziegler-Clifford contest by outside groups -- mostly from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent some $2.2 million on educational ads that (correctly) labeled Clifford as a leftist.
Big fat gobs of money
And more will continue to be thrown at our high court races either way. What I object to most is that Supreme Court candidates can't really say anything of substance during their campaigns. That is a charade.
When conservative challenger Max Gableman put out a mailing hitting his opponent, incumbent Justice Louis Butler, for being soft on crime, a front group for the private State Bar Association attacked Gableman for saying judges are supposed to be "arbiters of conflicts" not "representatives for ... law enforcement, prosecutors or defendants."
In a Jan. 18 op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, three attorneys revealed that the Bar Association's Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee now wants the candidates to pledge to refrain:
... from engaging in speech that the eight-person committee believes is false, unfair or otherwise offensive. It also requires that the candidates monitor what others say on their behalf and, if the committee decides that speech is improper, the candidates must publicly disavow it.
The attorneys argue that:
... it is inappropriate for the Bar to make itself the arbiter of when speech crosses the line.
No matter how well intentioned, the pledge will effectively prevent Wisconsin voters from obtaining the fullest information possible for deciding who is best-suited to serve on our highest court. Although it pays lip service to the First Amendment, the pledge will force candidates to choose between exercising their free speech rights as they see fit and facing a possible scolding by the committee.
Tell the Bar's committee to go pound sand
Which underscores the folly of judges campaigning for election. They should be appointed, as are our U.S. Supreme Court justices. But not by the so-called Missouri merit method (endorsed by the Wisconsin State Journal), which allows the governor to choose only among three applicants approved by -- you guessed it! -- the state bar association.
David Ziemer writes in the Wisconsin Law Journal that:
The Missouri system that the Wisconsin State Journal advocates is more partisan than our own.
I've said it before and I say it now: give the governor the power to appoint, subject to approval by the State Senate. You can even make it a super-majority. If you want, have the justice stand for a straight up or down vote in five, six years, whatever. If voted off the island, the governor appoints a replacement and the process begins anew.