The Impartial Justice bill passed Thursday by the Assembly and Senate easily qualifies as the most significant campaign reform in Wisconsin in more than 30 years. Not since 1977 has a reform approaching this magnitude been achieved in this state.
Wisconsin has been electing Supreme Court justices for more than 150 years, but in very recent years these elections have been turned into auctions. Passage of this legislation marks the beginning of Wisconsin’s return to the kind of high court elections that served our state extremely well for over a century and a half.
Our justice system is built on a bedrock principle. Judges aren’t supposed to belong to anyone. They are to be accountable only to the law and the Constitution. Every legislator who voted for the Impartial Justice bill today struck a critically important blow for that principle.
Thursday’s action was a timely and forceful response to the court majority’s outrageous decision last week to approve rules written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association allowing judges in Wisconsin to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters.
The Impartial Justice bill does not address every cause of eroding public confidence in the independence of our courts and the fairness and impartiality of judges, and it does not solve every problem plaguing the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Other reforms – such as those proposed in Senate Bill 43 and Assembly Bill 63 – are surely needed. But this legislation does free candidates for the state’s highest court from the money chase and enables any who seek this office to vigorously campaign and communicate with voters without having to raise huge sums of private special interest money from individuals and organizations who may end up appearing before them in court.
Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconisn Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. Additional information is available at www.wisdc.org.