To hear some folks tell it, Annette Ziegler has thrown the entire Wisconsin judicial system -- and its proud legacy of integrity -- into crisis.
"No justice has ever joined the Wisconsin Supreme Court under quite so thick a cloud," clucked The Capital Times in early August. Back then, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission was still looking into Ziegler's handling of cases as a circuit court judge involving parties to which her family had financial ties.
"That inquiry," the paper intoned, "could lead to her removal from the court -- indeed, if the commission and the [Supreme Court, the final arbiter of judicial discipline] take seriously the ethical standards that have historically applied in Wisconsin, it is difficult to imagine how she could remain on the court."
When the state Judicial Commission recommended that Ziegler, who had already been fined $17,000 over her failure to disclose conflicts, receive a mere reprimand (affirmed as punishment enough on January 3 by a judicial panel, available as a related download at right), the recriminations escalated.
"Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, who was elected last April after a campaign in which she and her supporters explicitly and repeatedly lied to the voters of Wisconsin about her ethical lapses, continues to engage in what can only be described as scandalous behavior," The Cap Times fulminated in November.
The paper specifically ripped Ziegler for her policy of notifying parties of potential conflicts and recusing herself if they object, suggesting this made matters even worse. It deemed her continued presence on the court "shameful," adding, "But Ziegler has no shame."
When Ziegler agreed to hear a case involving Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the big-business lobby group that spent more than $2 million to get her elected (more than her own campaign's record-breaking sum), The Cap Times was apoplectic.
Ziegler "has confirmed beyond a doubt that she lacks not just the integrity but the judgment required of a jurist," it thundered. "It is for this reason that Ziegler must leave the Supreme Court bench."
The Cap Times' John Nichols, the presumed architect of these attacks, argued in a signed column that the call for Ziegler's head "is not a matter of party or ideology. It is a matter of whether the highest court in Wisconsin will maintain the basic ethical standards that are the essential underpinning of respect for the rule of law."
I disagree. The objections being sounded by The Cap Times and others have everything to do with ideology. If a liberal justice committed the same indiscretions, WMC would be demanding her resignation and The Cap Times would be saying it was not a big deal.
Let me be clear: Given my own political persuasions, I think the ascension of Annette Ziegler to the Wisconsin Supreme Court is not a good thing. Her campaign rhetoric, delivered with a wink and a nod to conservatives, suggests she'll seldom miss an opportunity to align herself with corporate and institutional power, to the detriment of ordinary citizens.
And Ziegler was wrong to preside over cases in which she had an undisclosed personal connection to one of the parties. Her poor judgment was exacerbated by her initial refusal to admit she'd done anything wrong.
Add to this the disingenuousness of her claim, in a terse email response to my questions (she declined an interview request) regarding steps she's taken to avoid future conflicts: "My husband and I have all our stocks in blind trusts. I have no idea what the stocks are."
No idea? Surely, unless someone has unloaded every last holding in her massive portfolio (her last reporting showed more than three dozen investments in excess of $50,000 and nearly 200 for smaller amounts), she could make some educated guesses. Or she could simply favor every corporation that comes before her, since she owns a piece of so many.
But while Ziegler may be a tad imperious, she is not, as her critics contend, manifestly corrupt. It's unfair to fault a public official for having vast personal wealth in a system that makes this a virtual prerequisite for high office. (Her opponent in last year's election, Linda Clifford, is also well-to-do - and, like Ziegler, engaged in negative campaigning backed by powerful special interests.)
And neither is Ziegler showing she hasn't learned from her mistakes. Since the start of the Supreme Court's current term in September, she has disclosed potential conflicts to parties in 24 cases. In two of these she was asked her to recuse herself, and did.
As far as I'm concerned, Ziegler is doing what she needs to do: providing full disclosure and heeding the wishes of parties who object.
In the case that's received the most attention, WMC is backing businesses seeking $350 million in tax refunds and interest from the state. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, whose office represents the state Department of Revenue in this case, did not ask Ziegler to step aside.
Some allege that Van Hollen is repaying WMC for mightily aiding his own campaign. I doubt it. It's always a mistake, I think, to underestimate the desire of lawyers to win. More likely, Van Hollen considers this bad form or has confidence in his case.
Will Ziegler see things WMC's way? Probably. That's why it spent $2 million to put her on the bench and why it will likely spend as much this spring on mendacious ads against Justice Louis Butler, a liberal-leaning jurist who's up for reelection.
But it was the voters of Wisconsin, not WMC, who elected Annette Ziegler - and by a wide margin. If they were paying attention, they would have known about her conflicts and her "I'm with you" signals to conservatives. But they either didn't know or didn't care.
If we want a different system, we should fight for it. Perhaps we should join the majority of states that appoint justices based on merit, rather than leave this to voters ignorant enough to be swayed by 30-second ads. Absent such a change, Wisconsin needs full public financing of judicial campaigns, with matching funds to counter outside ads.
In the meantime, we'll continue to get justices like Annette Ziegler. In other words, we'll get the justices we deserve.