Wednesday, December 12, 2007

State Supreme Court Increasingly Dysfunctional Over Donations

In what is likely to be a routine event, State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler recused herself from a case in which her big-money business donors had potentially-conflicting connections - - and the remaining justices deadlocked 3-3.

As a result, the case gets bumped down to an appellate panel, so it's not justice denied or derailed, but it is justice shunted to something of a spur.
The appellate court is certainly qualified, but it ain't the Supremes.

It was an important case - - whether Wisconsin towns can impose moratoriums on development while writing Smart Growth plans.

My esteemed colleague from the WMCS-AM 1290 "Backstory" media panel, Rick Esenberg, tells the Journal Sentinel that Ziegler's recusal and the resulting no-decision-decision illustrates that justices should hesitate from stepping away from cases.

I think that's missing the point.

Ziegler's really didn't have any choice.

She removed herself at the request of one of the parties, and given the ethical cloud she's under for failing to disclose conflicts-of-interest while on the Washington County circuit court bench, or to voluntarily remove herself from a large number of such cases, she did what she had to do.

And since she's awaiting a disciplinary slap, or worse, from the other justices for those earlier transgressions, Ziegler, for some time, will have to step aside, voluntarily or upon request, if she's taken as much as an after-dinner mint from a donor or party to any case coming before her.

She probably doesn't think this fair, but she's the poster person for lapses in judicial ethics, and since her major donors, like the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, are often in court, it may be in the interest of the justice system for Ziegler to step down from court.

And I don't say that lightly. I know she was elected statewide.

But if she's considered radioactive, the entire system is going to suffer. We can't have a Supreme Court of six full-time voting members, and one part-timer who is often conflicted-out.

And the public should use this high court dysfunctionality to demand that the legislature put Supreme Court races on a public-funding diet only.

Esenberg doesn't like that, either, and I cordially suggest that as is often the case, he needs to give it some more thought.

Ziegler is exhibit "A" for the need to drastically limit, or entirely wring the money out of Supreme Court campaigns - - but she will probably not be the only one as time goes by and other justices are held to the same standard.

You could argue that Ziegler has become a change agent for a less-conflicted court.


But instead of policy-making by unintended consequences and cascading embarrassments, how about some intentional ethical decision-making, both by Ziegler about her increasingly untenable situation, and by the legislature on the matter of urgent campaign finance reform.

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