The Honorable Judge Fair (D-WI) and Judge Impartial (R-WI)

In this update: 1. Federal court rules judges can join parties 2. Need grows for new judicial recusal rules 3. State bar endorses court reform 4. League of Women Voters forum delves into money and politics 5. Contributor database updated 6. WEAC alone in influencing state school chief race The Honorable Judge Fair (D-WI) and Judge Impartial (R-WI) 

Email date: 2/19/09

In this update:
1. Federal court rules judges can join parties
2. Need grows for new judicial recusal rules
3. State bar endorses court reform
4. League of Women Voters forum delves into money and politics
5. Contributor database updated
6. WEAC alone in influencing state school chief race

In a decision issued Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that judges can join political parties, endorse candidates for partisan offices and personally solicit campaign contributions.

To read more about the ruling, go here.

While judges in Wisconsin technically do not run under a party banner, court elections in the last few years have become nonpartisan in name only. In this regard, perhaps the elegantly written decision by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb could be viewed as a step toward truth in advertising.

But the ruling does nothing to steer judicial politics in Wisconsin away from its current crash course; in fact, if anything it speeds the train toward the looming wreck.

Judge Crabb’s ruling is sure to have consequences both anticipated and unintended. The Democracy Campaign’s director blogged yesterday about one conclusion that definitely should not be drawn from the decision.

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One sure outcome of the federal court decision will be intensified scrutiny of current judicial ethics rules spelling out when and under what circumstances judges should recuse themselves from cases. The prospect of judges joining political parties and personally soliciting campaign donations sharply underscores how woefully inadequate and out of date those rules have become.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin filed a petition with the state Supreme Court calling for new recusal rules, but the court has put off consideration of the petition until after the U.S. Supreme Court decides a high-profile West Virginia case that, as the New York Times reported, could change court elections across the country.

Caperton v. Massey grew out of a business dispute between competing coal companies. The president of Harman Coal Company, Hugh Caperton, sued Massey Energy Company alleging it used fraudulent business practices to destroy his company. In 2002, a West Virginia jury agreed and awarded Harman $50 million.

In 2004, while appealing the judgment, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million in support of lawyer Brent Benjamin’s bid for a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court. Benjamin won the election. In 2007, Justice Benjamin rejected a motion to recuse himself from the case and cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision to overturn the jury’s $50 million award.

The Democracy Campaign has joined 26 other groups in filing a "friend of the court" brief in the case.

For more information about the Caperton case, go here and here.

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The Impartial Justice bill reforming state Supreme Court elections got a new backer recently, as the State Bar of Wisconsin issued a statement two weeks ago endorsing the legislation.

Although the Impartial Justice bill was introduced in previous sessions of the Legislature, the state bar association had not taken a position on the proposed reform.

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Last week’s forum in Janesville sponsored by the League of Women Voters on the money in state politics inspired two editorials in The Janesville Gazette, one published Saturday and another Sunday.

To listen to Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe’s remarks at the forum, go here.

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WDC’s searchable computer database of contributors to state campaigns was updated again last week, adding thousands of new records of donations through October 20, 2008.

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The primary election to narrow the field of candidates for state school superintendent to two was held Tuesday. Not surprisingly, the top finisher was the candidate with the backing of the one special interest group that did its own campaigning in the race. For more on this, go here.