WDC Requests Ethics Probe of Supreme Court Candidate

Request for investigation cites 16 cases of conflict of interest by Ziegler

March 19, 2007

Madison - The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign today asked the Wisconsin Judicial Commission to investigate whether state Supreme Court candidate Annette Ziegler violated the Judicial Code of Conduct by handling cases in which she or her husband had a significant financial or business relationship with one of the parties.

WDC’s request cites nine cases handled by Ziegler, a Washington County circuit judge, involving banks and other businesses in which she owned $50,000 worth of stock or more. Seven other cases cited in WDC’s request involve West Bend Savings Bank which paid Ziegler’s husband for being a member of its board of directors and for renting space he owns to the bank. In addition, Ziegler has received a multi-million dollar loan from the bank. Part of the judicial code of conduct says a conflict of interest occurs when judges or their family members are a party in a case or “an officer, director or trustee of a party” in a case before them.

Most of the cases involved small claims and money judgments ranging from $532 to nearly $47,000, a small business bankruptcy, mortgage foreclosure and automobile repossessions. The financial institutions brought the complaints seeking the money, equipment and autos and won. Two cases involving auto injuries remain open and another case was settled out of court.

WDC identified the court cases in its request to the commission by reviewing several dozen cases Ziegler handled from 2004 to date and comparing the parties in those cases with the companies she listed investments with in her Statement of Economic Interests filed with the State Ethics Board. Electronic court records show Ziegler did not withdraw from the cases or inform the parties about her financial ties. And, Ziegler has not disputed the accuracy of recent media reports that said she did not withdraw or inform the parties of conflicts of interest in dozens of cases she handled.

The Judicial Commission’s executive director also reportedly said judges must inform the parties or withdraw from cases where there are substantial conflicts of interest, such as financial gain, or the appearance of a serious conflict of interest. He also characterized an investment of $50,000 or more as “a big number.” One of the commission’s advisory committees issued a non-binding opinion in 2000 recommending judges who have an interest of $20,000 or more with a party in a case before them to withdraw or tell all of the parties and let them decide whether to seek another judge for the case.

"Judge Ziegler repeatedly broke clear-cut judicial ethics rules on conflicts of interest and continues to this day to act as though they don’t apply to her. She needs to be held accountable for that. The rules are not negotiable and simply ignoring them is not an option for any judge," WDC director Mike McCabe said. "These repeated lapses in judgment call into question not only Judge Ziegler’s fitness to serve on the state Supreme Court, but also her fitness to continue serving as a circuit court judge."

WDC hopes the commission reviews these and other cases it deems necessary with some urgency to avoid the possibility the Supreme Court has to discipline one of its own members if Ziegler is elected April 3.