State Justice Is in Supreme Trouble

State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct. That much is clear. The state Judicial Commission so ruled September 6, and Ziegler admitted it. State Justice Is in Supreme Trouble

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

October 22, 2007

State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct. That much is clear. The state Judicial Commission so ruled September 6, and Ziegler admitted it.

But will she be meaningfully punished? That remains to be seen.

The Judicial Commission recommended she be reprimanded and filed a formal complaint with the state Supreme Court, which will have the final say on disciplinary action.

The commission’s recommended punishment amounts to a light tap on the wrist for the newest member of the high court. It sends a horribly weak signal to the rest of the state’s judges about what will happen if ethics rules are ignored or broken.

A three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel is now reviewing the commission’s work before it goes to the Supreme Court and issued an order late last month that expands the scope of the Ziegler probe and questions why the Judicial Commission apparently left stones unturned.

The panel scheduled a November 19 hearing on the case, and gave the Judicial Commission and Ziegler’s attorneys three weeks to answer questions about Ziegler’s finances, her handling of cases as a circuit judge, which facts the commission relied upon to recommend a reprimand, and the timing of Ziegler’s admission that she engaged in judicial misconduct.

Judicial Commission chief Jim Alexander told reporters, “You can rest assured the matter was thoroughly investigated.” Reading the order, it doesn’t sound like the three judges on the review panel are convinced.

While all the questions the judges ask are important, it’s the timing of Ziegler’s admission that is most critical because it cuts to her forthrightness and whether she deceived voters by being less than forthcoming before the election about the seriousness of her ethical missteps.

Before the April election, Ziegler danced around the question of whether she had violated the judicial ethics code and only insisted there was “no scandal.” After the election, she admitted she broke the rules.

This whole episode reflects almost as unfavorably on the Judicial Commission as it does on Ziegler. The commission is supposed to protect the integrity of our court system by making sure judges follow clear ethics rules. It operates in obscurity, like a scout teamer on a football squad who never gets on the field during games. The Ziegler ethics probe was a rare chance to perform with the lights on and a big crowd watching.

The commission finally was put in the game and got to carry the ball. It fumbled.

Now it’s in the Judicial Conduct Panel’s court. What that panel recommends to the Supreme Court – and even how it conducts itself – warrants careful scrutiny, especially since its formation hit a snag when it was discovered one of the judges donated to Ziegler’s campaign. Appeals Court Judge Michael Hoover was hastily removed from the review panel when news spread that he gave Ziegler $100 last November.

Will the standard that caused Hoover’s removal apply when Ziegler’s case finally makes it to the Supreme Court? Justice David Prosser donated $250 to Ziegler’s campaign last November and gave another $250 in March. The second donation came more than two weeks after the first media report of Ziegler’s ethics problems, and two days after the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign formally requested an investigation by the Judicial Commission.

Will Prosser stand in judgment of Ziegler? How can he if Hoover couldn’t?

This is uncharted territory because never before has the state Supreme Court been in a position of having to discipline one of its own members for judicial misconduct. The court’s other members can’t be looking forward to this. The six who now serve with Ziegler have to decide cases with her, and surely hope to persuade Ziegler to sign on to opinions they write.

The big question is which impulse will prevail in the end. . . . The need to at least appear serious about enforcing judicial ethics standards? Or the personal and professional longing for collegiality?

Ziegler’s lawyer says she deserves to be treated like any other judge, and notes that a municipal judge was publicly reprimanded for ruling on cases involving relatives. But should a Supreme Court justice really be treated exactly the same as a municipal judge?

Of course not. Ziegler not only is a member of the state’s highest court but also is the first to face disciplinary action for judicial misconduct. If punished, she will stand alone in wearing that badge of dishonor.

Because her case is unique, so should her punishment be. A reprimand won’t do. At least a suspension is in order.