More than 50 former Wisconsin judges filed a petition Wednesday with the Wisconsin Supreme Court requesting that it create “strong new rules” that would determine when judges must disqualify themselves from cases. These new rules are needed in order to remove conflicts of interest and “even the appearance of bias,” the judges argue.
The group says in a news release it is taking this unusual step “in response to growing spending in Wisconsin’s judicial elections, as well as recent changes that have loosened contribution limits to judicial candidates and recusal standards for Supreme Court justices.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2010 adopted new rules that say judges do not need to disqualify themselves from cases solely based on campaign contributions.
The judges argue in their petition for greater safeguards against judicial abuse. “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 54 former judges who signed the petition, some of whom still work as reserve judges, are requesting that the Supreme Court establish specific contribution amounts that would necessitate a recusal. They propose $10,000 for Supreme Court justices; $2,500 for Appeals Court judges; $1,000 for Circuit Court judges and $500 for Municipal Court judges.
Former Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi says the effort started more than a year ago at the annual conference for Wisconsin judges. “We started talking about the rule passed in 2010 and how bad it was,” she says. “People just got on the bandwagon.”
The group intentionally did not reach out to sitting judges, she adds. “We thought it would put them in an awkward position.”
Sumi says the request for a change in rules is driven in part by a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. According to the petition, the Court concluded in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. that a “‘fair tribunal’ had not been provided when a West Virginia state supreme court justice refused to recuse himself from a case where one of the parties had contributed huge amounts in support of the justice’s election.”
The petition also notes that the Center for American Progress, in 2014, conducted an empirical review of recusal rules in all states that elect judges. “Only three states had lower grades for their systems to address the real and perceived conflicts created by campaign contributions to the judge by parties and/or attorneys.”
The Supreme Court’s information officer could not be immediately reached for comment.