“Money can’t buy me love.”
— The Beatles
… … …
A favorable judicial ruling? Well, that’s another thing altogether.
That was the tune sung by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices last month when they rejected a proposal by 54 retired state jurists to force judges up and down the ladder — from municipal court judges to high court justices — to recuse themselves from cases involving those who contributed financially or otherwise supported their political campaigns for office.
On a 5-2 vote, conservatives on the state high court voted to reject a bright line standard for when judges must remove themselves from a case. The retired judges suggested recusal if a circuit court judge received $1,000 or more from a litigant or attorney in a case; a threshold of $2,500 for appeals judges and $10,000 for Supreme Court judges.
Instead, under current rules, that decision will continue to be left to the judge himself or herself.
In today’s political climate with a highly politicized high court that now relies on millions of dollars in special interest spending on issue ads to promote judicial candidates, that is an open invitation to corruption.
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On the high end of the political spending level, that means lobbying organizations cannot help but get a friendly ear to their arguments when they donate heavily to a judge’s political campaign. On the low end, that means anyone in a municipal court might feel disadvantaged going before a municipal judge knowing that the opposing litigant or his attorney had put some cash in the judge’s political coffers.
The high court majority — which declined to even give a public hearing to the proposed rule change — cast it as a constitutional and free speech issue and some were mightily offended that it had come before the court at all.
“Every judge and justice in Wisconsin should be highly offended by this petition because it attacks their integrity,” said Justice Rebecca Bradley.
Justice Daniel Kelly chimed in that judges are capable of determining on their own when they must step aside.
“The question is whether we should tell judges and the state that we don’t trust them to do that,” said Kelly. “I think that’s caustic and inappropriate and an unnecessary thing for us to do.”
We take umbrage with that umbrage.
We have seen too many instances in the past decade where justices have resisted or rejected requests for recusal based on conflicts of interest. We have watched as special-interest group spending on issue ads in state Supreme Court races soared to more than $13 million in the past decade. We have watched as the state Legislature has rewritten state law to allow candidates for office — including judicial office — to coordinate campaign work with groups that don’t disclose their election spending.
On the recusal issue, Rick Esenberg of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, filed a brief, saying, “Money is speech, or more accurately, speech requires money.”
With its 5-2 vote, the justices showed they are listening attentively.
It may be the law of the land, but the law and our land are both poorer for it. The fat wallets of special interest spending have been placed on the scales of justice.