Limiting Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to a single 16-year term would help restore public confidence in a court whose image has been battered by increasingly savage political campaigns fueled by a rising tide of money, a special task force of attorneys says.
The state Bar of Wisconsin panel wants to see a constitutional amendment introduced this fall to change the system that allows justices to run for unlimited 10-year terms, said Joe Troy, a former circuit judge who led an 18-month study that resulted in the proposal.
“The campaigns have become so brutal,” Troy said. “The sitting justice is attacked and demeaned, and the challenger is attacked and demeaned. The public sees that and thinks we must not have very good justices.”
The proposed term limits aren’t a cure-all, but they would help restore public trust in the system, Troy said.
“No justice, once elected, would ever be elected again,” Troy said. “The perception that they are there serving the people (with money) who put them there, or they are worried about the next election, that’s just not going to happen.”
Constitutional amendments require passage in two consecutive Legislatures before going to the voters.
Troy said political leaders from both major parties objected to an earlier plan involving appointing justices, but so far they’ve been open-minded and intrigued by term limits.
Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, weren’t available for comment late Friday. Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the plan could be promising.
Troy said members of the Supreme Court also have been briefed on the plan and have offered suggestions.
Former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske said term limits could be a good start to repairing the court’s reputation.
“My concern is the vast amount of money that is being spent and the way it’s being spent on ads that aren’t relevant to the duties and responsibilities of the job,” said Geske, a Marquette University law professor. “They take one opinion out of a justice’s whole career and that becomes the total issue in the campaign. This proposal would diminish that.”
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices — seen as divided along liberal and conservative lines — have been widely criticized in recent years for alleged ethical lapses and interpersonal squabbling.
In the most prominent case, Justice David Prosser put his hands on the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley after he says she aggressively approached him during an argument.
Justice Michael Gableman was formally charged with running campaign advertisements that broke an ethics rule because they so badly distorted his opponent’s record. Gableman later faced criticism because he accepted free legal services from a law firm and then continued to take part in cases involving the firm.
The proposed Constitutional amendment wouldn’t fix problems of the current court — in fact each of the sitting justices would be allowed to run for one more term of 16 years under the proposal, Troy said.
“This would be a better system for our children to live under,” Troy said.
One source of tension on the current court is that justices from one faction believe members of the other faction are helping their electoral opponents, Troy said. That would be less of a problem for justices who can’t run for re-election, he said.
The intense negativity of election campaigns may continue unless a change in campaign finance laws is accomplished, but at least there would be fewer campaigns, and no re-elections, Troy said.
Term limits could embolden more and better candidates to run, said Tom Shriner, a member of the state bar committee.
“You would attract candidates who would say, ‘I’ll put myself and my family through that once, and try to make a mark as a member of the court, and then do something else,’” Shriner said.
Geske said the proposal would limit the role of special interest groups.
“The special interests on both sides of the aisle believing they have some influence over the justices, that would be gone,” Geske said. “I like that part of it.”
Troy said he will ask the governing board of the state bar to endorse the plan before beginning to seek support from other groups and individuals, including lawmakers.