Monday, November 26, 2007

A Clue To The Ziegler Case Outcome

Speculation will continue until the Wisconsin Supreme Court makes a ruling to end the ethics case pending against now sitting Justice Annette Ziegler.

I think one tip-off that what some Ziegler supporters had hoped would be a slap on the wrist instead could be a hard jab is found in the tone and timing of a recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial, which I'll cite in a moment.

But first, the background.

The case arouse out of Ziegler's multiple failures as a Washington County Circuit Court judge to disclose she had a financial interest in a bank that was a party repeatedly in cases before her. Nor did she remove herself from the cases after they were assigned to her.

The case has worked its way through a proceeding involving a judicial commission, and a hearing before a panel of appellate judges.

As if Wisconsin's judiciary need another case-related embarrassment, the appellate panel chairman, Ralph Adam Fine opined that Ziegler's admitted violations of the judicial ethics code, compared to some unspecified previous case, were "a blip."


Ouch - - if you're Ziegler, or in her corner. With friends like that...

My hunch is that Fine more or less sealed Ziegler's fate, serving to push the Court to issue her nothing short of a harshly-worded reprimand, and perhaps a suspension that is more than symbolic, to drive home now two points:

1. Ziegler violated the judicial ethics code, and also...
2. Ralph Adam Fine does not speak for the Wisconsin judicial system, and does not define what we should expect from people seeking or attaining a spot on a circuit court, let alone the state supreme court.

The Wisconsin State Journal is the morning paper most likely on the Justices' State Capitol desks when they get to work, and there's little doubt they missed this editorial calling for Court-ordered discipline that repudiates the Fine statement, too.

Some of the editorial's key points:

"Ziegler 's actions are not, as Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Ralph Adam Fine suggested last week, just a "blip on the screen " compared to wrongdoing by other Wisconsin judges. Ziegler disregarded clear rules -- what the other two Court of Appeals judges called a "bright line " -- governing ethical conduct.

"Ziegler did not recuse herself from cases involving West Bend Savings Bank even though her husband was serving on the bank 's board of directors.

"Ziegler handled not one, not two, but 51 West Bend Savings Bank cases where she had a conflict of interest. So far, she has admitted violating the state 's ethics code in 11 of those cases. She has paid a fine and other costs to try to put the ongoing disciplinary action behind her.

"But before that can happen, a tougher penalty is required. "

Newspaper editorial writers don't direct government decision-making, but they can have an influence.

Don't forget that the Justices - - as well as circuit judges - - live and work in the political world.

They are elected-officials, too, appreciating editorial support as much as people running for Sheriff and the County Board.

I would suspect that an editorial that takes a swipe at Ralph Adam Fine in its otherwise strongly-worded "Don't go easy on Ziegler" argument will inevitably find its way into the Court's thinking.

And it's important to note that the State Journal, which led the statewide mainstream media covering the Ziegler issue, is generally a GOP-leaning publication - - more reason for Ziegler to be concerned.

Ziegler will no doubt feel that she should not be punished for the remarks of another jurist, and that editorial writers should have nothing to do with it, but there never would have been a case against her if she had followed the state's judicial and conflict-of-ethics admonitions.

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