Dozens of Retired Judges Ask Wisconsin Supreme Court for New Campaign Donor Recusal Rules

January 12, 2017

Blind Justice Statue

More than four dozen retired judges from around Wisconsin have asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider new rules that would require judges and justices to recuse themselves in cases involving parties or lawyers who spent money to help elect them.

The proposed rules say circuit judges would have to step aside in cases where their campaign accepted $1,000 or more from a party or an attorney in a case that comes before them. For appellate judges, the threshold would be $2,500 and for Supreme Court justices the threshold would be $10,000. The same limits would apply to contributions to independent expenditure and phony issue advocacy groups that get involved in judicial elections.

The proposal comes from 54 retired circuit and appellate judges and former justices who participated in more than 150 judicial elections and served more than 1,100 years on the bench combined. The group contacted Supreme Court Chief Justice Pat Roggensack about their proposal last November.

One of those judges, retired Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael J. Skwierawski, said in a statement the proposal is an effort to “restore the public’s confidence in the independence and impartiality of the courts in Wisconsin. They will go a long way to eliminate concerns as to whether any judge who has received substantial contributions can preside over a case involving that contributor or a related party.”

Right now, the high court is working under Code of Judicial Conduct recusal rules it approved in 2010 that allow them to stay on cases involving campaign donors who give them thousands of dollars and outside special interest groups that spend millions of dollars in judicial elections. The decision to stay on a case is up to the judge.

The present recusal rules were written with help from two groups, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which together spent an estimated $5.8 million since 2007 to back conservative candidates to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The current rules were approved 4-3 by majority conservatives on the court. Today, conservatives hold a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court.

Former Supreme Court Justices Janine Geske and Louis Butler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it was time for the high court to revisit the rules approved by the court in 2010 because the justices know there is a problem.

Geske and Butler were among the judges behind the request the Supreme Court consider new rules.

“As money in elections becomes more predominant, citizens rightfully ask whether justice is for sale,” the petition to the court says. “The appearance of partiality that large campaign donations cause strikes at the heart of the judicial function, which depends on the public's respect for its judgments.”