Thursday, April 9, 2015

Wisconsin Supreme Court For Sale?

A referendum was passed in a low-turnout election in Wisconsin on Tuesday to change the way the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court is chosen.  This sounds so bad it almost has to be an exaggeration:
On the surface, what happened yesterday looks like just a small change in how the Wisconsin Supreme Court chooses a chief justice. In fact, it's much more.
The referendum was rushed onto the spring-election ballot when little else was up for a vote, guaranteeing a low turnout. And Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), a group aptly described by the Center for Media and Democracy as "Wisconsin's premier lobby for corporate tax breaks and low-wage jobs," poured in $600,000 at the last minute to back the measure.
The result: One of America's finest jurists may no longer be Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. For 126 years the chief justice has been chosen by seniority. Under that system, Shirley Abrahamson has held that post since 1996. In Wisconsin, Supreme Court justices are elected -- and the voters reelected Abrahamson to another 10-year term as Chief Justice in 2009. But now the state constitution has been amended so the justices will elect their chief. Chief Justice Abrahamson has filed a lawsuit to retain her position as Chief Justice for the remainder of her current term. Thanks to massive expenditures by groups such as WMC, which has spent at least $5.5 million on Supreme Court races since 2007, there is a conservative majority on the court -- likely guaranteeing that, unless Abrahamson's lawsuit succeeds, there will be a conservative chief justice at the helm.
But that's just the beginning. There's another backdoor effort underway to force Abrahamson off the court entirely by setting a mandatory retirement age of 75. Abrahamson is 81, and the people of Wisconsin reelected her to serve for four more years.
And there's more:
The conservative majority on the court lowered the court's conflict-of-interest standards. They approved changes in requirements for when justices must "recuse" themselves -- that is, decline to participate in a case. Now special interests can appear before judges to whom they've made campaign contributions -- and they can give money to judges even as those judges are presiding over cases to which the donors are parties.
The changes were written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
I guess owning the legislative and executive branches just isn't enough. 

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