MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority threw out a petition to bar judges at all levels from hearing cases involving the largest donors to their election campaigns.
The court voted 5-2 last week to reject a rule change suggested by 54 retired Wisconsin judges that would’ve required judges to recuse themselves if they have received campaign donations of certain sizes from any parties in a case. The suggested amounts ranged from $10,000 for state Supreme Court justices to $500 for municipal judges.
Only the court’s two liberal-leaning justices — Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley — voted for the change. It also had the support of liberal groups and dozens of individuals who argued that Wisconsin lags behind other states in protecting the appearance of fairness on the state’s courts.
Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley said when the justices met Thursday that she thinks adopting the change would violate the U.S. Constitution because campaign donations amount to free speech.
“The people of Wisconsin have a First Amendment right to speak out in favor of the judges they support and in opposition of the judges they oppose without being penalized,” she said. “If a judge does not act with impartiality and integrity, that judge will answer to the people of Wisconsin on election day.”
State Supreme Court candidates currently can receive up to $20,000 from an individual donor and a court can’t force judges to recuse themselves from cases in which they might have conflicts of interest. Candidates are also free to coordinate with outside interest groups who spend money on so-called issue advocacy but don’t endorse specific candidates.
The court’s liberal justices pushed for a public hearing on the January petition after it garnered dozens of submitted comments in the past several weeks, with the majority supporting the change.
“I have never seen in 22 years such reaction from across the state,” said Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. “What is so threatening about hearing what people in this state want to tell us?
The court also voted 5-2 against holding a hearing.
Jenni Dye, research director for the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, decried the court’s actions.
“By rejecting the petition — or even holding a public hearing to consider it — they defended a status quo where members of this court and other judges can reap electoral rewards of massive special interest spending with no concern for the appearance, if not the existence, of actual corruption or the damage done to the public’s faith in the impartiality of the court,” she said in a statement.
Democratic lawmakers, whose bills to address judicial impartiality have stalled, also criticized the decision.
“The perception is that these judges are being bought and paid for by these special interests,” Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison, told reporters. “The whole integrity of our judicial system, particularly at the top, at the state Supreme Court, is really at issue.”
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack delayed the court’s vote on the petition by more than a month after a lawyer from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty requested more time to file comments opposing the change in mid-March.
Attorney Rick Esenberg of WILL, one of the most outspoken opponents of the change, argued that altering the rules would steer individuals away from contributing to campaigns and that “money is speech.” The Wisconsin Bankers Association and 11 retired judges also opposed the change.
Justices Daniel Kelly, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman joined Roggensack and Bradley in rejecting the petition.