Our Supreme Court elections have turned into auctions for the highest bidders

From the debt ceiling talks in Washington to the reaction to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Stranglegate scandal, the politicians’ Rule Number One is on prominent display. When things get fouled up, never accept responsibility and always assign blame.

When one justice’s hands somehow made their way to another’s neck, our state’s officialdom could have swiftly insisted on acceptance of responsibility. Instead we got hasty assignment of blame. Some are faulting Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson for not being more of a peacemaker. Now two state senators are blaming the state constitution, calling for it to be amended to end Supreme Court elections.

Political Rule Number One makes them roads rarely traveled, but the paths to responsibility are as numerous as the potential targets of blame. Let’s review the options.

The judiciary could police itself. Judicial misconduct charges could be filed in response to the recent physical altercation in the high court’s chambers. Discipline can range from reprimand to suspension and even removal from office.

Any perpetrators of physical violence could be held to account in the criminal justice system. Charges could be filed and any criminal acts could be prosecuted.

The Legislature could initiate impeachment proceedings.

Voters could, at the proper moment, exercise their right to pursue a recall election.

It is striking that Senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen did not advocate any of these measures. Instead they found fault with the state’s founding document. And they blamed the voters.

It is even more striking that they issued their indictment of Supreme Court elections a matter of days after legislators voted to eviscerate the Impartial Justice Act that provided high court candidates with an alternative to grubbing for private special interest money in order to run competitively for the office. And they put an exploding candle on their carcinogenic cake when they increased the limit on private donations to Supreme Court hopefuls. Not by a little either. Tenfold. The old limit was $1,000. The new limit is $10,000.

There is no doubt that the flood of money in recent Supreme Court elections is at the heart of the court’s current dysfunction. And there is no doubt that legislators and the governor just made matters much worse.

They are not done throwing monkey wrenches. Now that they have swung the floodgates open even more widely, they are advancing legislation to prevent the public from knowing how much money is flowing into elections and where that money is coming from.

They take such actions and then they have the gall to suggest that the real problem is the governing framework Wisconsin’s founders designed. They scream at the top of their lungs, "the state Supreme Court is an effing mess! Amend the constitution!"

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court used to be a national model, recognized as one of the finest courts in the nation. Has it occurred to no one in the Capitol or on the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board that all the while this reputation was being earned the court was elected?

Our state has elected Supreme Court justices for over 150 years. For a century and a half, those elections produced a court that was deserving of the public’s trust and confidence. In very recent years, the court’s reputation has been badly tarnished. Has it occurred to no one at the Capitol or the State Journal that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t that we had Supreme Court elections for over a century and a half, it’s that we started having Supreme Court auctions beginning in 2007?

The constitution is not the problem. Democracy is not the problem. Political Rule Number One is. So are all the backward policies and judicial edicts that have turned our elections into auctions. Any real solution has to address those real problems.

Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan election campaign watchdog agency.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display