Thursday, February 7, 2019

Stronger Voter Participation and Recusal Rules Can Transform Our Judiciary and Democracy

For Release: Thursday - February 7, 2019

Critical April 2nd State Supreme Court Election Merits a Large Voter Turnout

Note: This piece first appeared as a guest editorial in the January 27 Wisconsin State Journal

Last November’s elections in Wisconsin produced the largest voter turnout for a mid-term (non-presidential year) election in Wisconsin’s history – approximately 60 percent of the eligible voting age population. Turnout would have been even higher if this state did not have among the most extreme and restrictive voter suppression laws in the nation.

This unprecedented voter turnout demonstrates the power citizens have at the ballot box to effect change -- when they turn out to vote – and how their voices can still be heard, even when they are confronted with serious obstacles to democracy such as restrictive voter identification laws, rigged voter maps through partisan gerrymandering, and millions of dollars of outside special interest group dark money election spending that seeks to determine the outcome of elections instead of the voters.

It’s a lesson Wisconsinites need to take to heart and embrace for all elections.

This coming April 2nd – less than than two months away – Wisconsin voters will decide the outcome of a very critical Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Long-time Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson is retiring and her seat on the court is up for grabs. Deep-pocketed special interest groups are preparing to spend millions of dollars to dictate the outcome of this election. And then, another critical Wisconsin Supreme Court election will be at stake in April of 2020 which could determine the ideological composition of the court and the direction Wisconsin will take for years to come.

Voter turnout is traditionally much lower in Spring elections than in those that take place in November. The approximately 20 percent voter turnout for the state supreme court election last April was considered unusually high. Most Spring elections garner a voter turnout in the 10 percent range statewide.

A significant issue in that election last April was whether or not Wisconsin judges at all levels should be forced to abide by reasonable recusal rules when they are the beneficiary of campaign contributions or outside spending by special interest groups. Wisconsin currently has the 47th weakest recusal rules in the nation. In 2018, the candidate favoring stronger recusal rules won election to the state high court.

The current recusal standard, which leaves it up to judges to decide whether they should recuse themselves or not, was written by one of Wisconsin’s biggest dark money special interest groups – Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – and was adopted as written by WMC, verbatim, by a narrow 4 to 3 majority in 2010. Even Illinois has stronger recusal rules than we do.

Two years ago, 54 retired jurists, including two former state supreme court justices, petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt some specific, sensible recusal standards but they were rebuffed and rejected by the majority on the court who further, denied even a public hearing on the matter. That is outrageous and an insult to all Wisconsinites.

It looks like it’s up to the voters to demand stronger recusal rules from the state’s highest court and support for these rules from all judicial candidates. The very integrity of our judges at all levels – from the state supreme court to municipal court judges is on the line. If a plaintiff or defendant before a judge has provided that judge a campaign contribution (or spent money in the judge’s behalf or against the judge’s opponent) above a certain, reasonable threshold, the judge should step aside. Fairness, impartiality and common sense demands it. As a citizen, you should too.

As the Spring election draws nearer, Wisconsinites should keep in mind that transformational change for the good is possible if they vote in spite of the obstacles that have been erected to make that basic citizen duty more difficult. And they should demand basic accountability and transparency by way of stronger recusal rules from their judiciary.

Don’t sit on the sidelines. Engage and participate. Your vote and voice make a difference.


Jay Heck
608/256-2686 (office)
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 W. Johnson St., Suite 212
Madison, WI  53703

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