Here we go again.
Another big-money, highly partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court election is fast approaching, with a February primary and April election.
And what will the state's important selection of a high court justice hinge on? Experience? Independence? Judicial temperament?
If only that were true.
Instead, like last year's ugly contest in which voters narrowly returned Justice David Prosser to the bench, the latest battle will be widely viewed as a referendum on Act 10, Wisconsin's controversial limits on collective bargaining for public workers.
Incumbent Justice Pat Roggensack and the high court's conservative majority voted to uphold those union restrictions, which were the signature legislation passed by Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans in early 2011. Roggensack faces re-election.
Her potential opponents include:
o Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi, who struck down Act 10 (the first time).
o Lemon-law attorney Vince Megna, who has lampooned the Republican governor in online videos, sometimes using foul language.
o Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone, who has given campaign donations to Democrats.
It would be nice to think that state Supreme Court elections could be honorable affairs. After all, judges — unlike lawmakers and governors — are supposed to be nonpartisan and impartial. They're supposed to rule on the law, not represent constituents.
Yet Wisconsin's system of selecting justices by popular vote has devolved into a mud pit of accusations and special-interest money, which tars even the winning candidate. Trust in the high court falls as conflicts of interest rise. The same lawyers and groups that spend millions to help elect justices subsequently come before those same men and women in black robes seeking legal decisions.
There's a better way. About half of the states appoint high court members based on merit, rather than on their ability to wage campaign wars. Sens. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, are leading the push for merit selection, which would insulate the process from politics (as much as possible) and prevent governors from stacking the high court with their cronies.
Judicial elections have turned Wisconsin's best judges into the worst of politicians. Appointing the state's top court in a balanced way makes more and more sense.