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Justice John Paul Stevens
Stevens speaks in Chicago on May 3. DAVID BANKS - Associated Press

Another legal giant is questioning judicial elections in Wisconsin.

Retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens suggested at a recent legal conference in Ohio that the federal system of appointing judges promotes judicial independence better than popular election of judges, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Stevens recalled the case of Milwaukee priest Father James Groppi, who led a half-day takeover of the Wisconsin Assembly chambers in 1969 to protest welfare cuts.

The Assembly cited Groppi with legislative contempt and ordered him to the Dane County Jail without trial or bail, citing an 1848 state law that had never before been used.

Groppi was extremely unpopular in Wisconsin at the time, and the elected Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld his punishment.

But when the case moved to the federal appeals court that Stevens sat on, he cast his vote to throw out the conviction because Groppi had not been given due process - a position the U.S. Supreme Court later vindicated. The Assembly failed to give Groppi notice of the charge and a chance to respond before he was punished.

"I remember thinking, ‘I have life tenure,'" Stevens told the legal conference in Ohio on May 5. So unlike the Wisconsin justices, Stevens didn't have to worry about voters punishing him if his decision was unpopular.

The Groppi case is a stark example of the differences between elected and appointed judges, Stevens said.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor offered similar views during a recent visit to Madison. O'Connor has traveled the nation calling for an end to state judicial elections. They're too partisan and tainted by campaign promises and fundraising, she said. And they're badly damaging public trust in impartial justice.

Also this spring, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said states should stop choosing judges by electing them.

Momentum is growing for reform in which justices are selected for their experience and independence, not for their ability to raise money, court the special interests and charm voters.