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Supreme Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber

Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold recently suggested that the way in which election campaigns in the United States are financed can reasonably be described as an “opaque system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.”

That’s a troubling notion in general.

But that’s a horrifying notion when it is applied to contests for judicial posts.

This is why 54 retired Wisconsin jurists, including former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske and former chief judge of the Wisconsin Appeals Court Richard Brown, last year asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to establish a rule requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases involving individuals or groups that had provided them with large campaign contributions. “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,” explained the jurists who asked the court to set a clear standard for recusal and disqualification.

The standard the retired judges suggested was straightforward. To remove the appearance of bias, the judges’ petition suggested that jurists be required to recuse themselves from cases in which an involved party donated at least:

• $10,000 for Supreme Court candidates

• $2,500 for Appeals Court candidates

• $1,000 for Circuit Court candidates

• $500 for Municipal Court candidates

The five corporate-friendly justices who make up the conservative majority on the high court rejected the petition without a hearing, leading independent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley to complain: "To shut it down without a hearing and without comment just undermines the public trust and confidence that is so important for the integrity of this court. What's so threatening about hearing what people in this state want to tell us?"

That’s the question that looms over this year’s election for an open post on the state Supreme Court.

Middleton attorney Tim Burns, the most candid contender in Tuesday’s court primary, says the rejection of the recusal standard sums up what’s wrong with the court — arguing that “the right-wing majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court shows a startling insensitivity to the appearance of impropriety.”

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Burns embraces the petition from the retired judges, saying: “Look, we all know that with this Citizens United case, our democracy is for sale. OK? We don't need our court system to look like it's for sale, too. But unfortunately, in Wisconsin, it very much looks like it's for sale.”

Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet has also made recusal a central issue for her campaign, saying: "We definitely need a rule. When there's massive amounts of money spent on a candidate, we need a rule where the justice then has to recuse themselves."

As for Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, the favorite of the special-interest donors in this year’s race: He rejects the recusal standard proposed by the retired jurists. In other words, Screnock does not choose to challenge the “opaque system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times