State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler is fixing to judge a tax case involving Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), which spent an estimated $2.2 million to get her elected – considerably more than the record-setting amount Ziegler spent on her own campaign.
Oral arguments on the case are scheduled to begin today.
Because of her ethics problems, Ziegler has taken to notifying all sides in cases before the high court of economic ties she has or any campaign support she received from any of the parties involved in a case. Ziegler also has been asking lawyers in the cases for feedback about whether she should recuse herself from the proceedings. She dropped out of one recent case after an attorney raised objections to a campaign contribution she received.
Ziegler is handling this tax case a bit differently. She informed all of the involved parties of the fact that WMC spent heavily on her behalf, but did not invite feedback on whether she should remove herself from the case. Instead, she notified the attorneys she intends to participate in hearing and ruling on the dispute over whether companies should have to pay sales tax on computer software they buy.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If someone were to ask Ziegler to step aside, it would be Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who represents the state Department of Revenue in this case. It so happens WMC spent $2.5 million to get Van Hollen elected in 2006. If Van Hollen were to ask Ziegler to recuse herself, as he clearly should, that would beg the question of whether Van Hollen should prosecute the case for the state. That question should be asked regardless of what Van Hollen says to Ziegler.
The outcome of this case has huge implications. If the state loses, it could be forced to refund an estimated $350 million in taxes collected from businesses. But the implications for the integrity of our justice system and public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of Wisconsin’s highest court are even more serious.
This case is providing an initial glimpse into what happens when our courts are politicized by campaigns for Supreme Court that are allowed to degenerate into such tawdry and money-saturated affairs.
Wisconsin’s court system has a big problem. This one case is showing just how big.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics, fights government corruption and works for campaign finance reform and other pro-democracy reforms. For additional information, visit www.wisdc.org.