Wisconsin Supreme Court Shuts Public Out

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

June 22, 2017

Shame on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for striking another blow against open government in Wisconsin.

It voted 5-2 on Wednesday to stop holding its administrative meetings in public, as Patrick Marley reported in the Journal Sentinel.

All five conservative justices voted to close the doors to the public. The two liberal justices, Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, voted in favor of keeping the doors open.

Just what are the conservative justices afraid of?

That the public might see how ludicrous their rationales are?

Those ludicrous rationales were on full display, for instance, when the Court met in April to discuss the petition from 54 retired Wisconsin judges that the Court tighten its recusal rules.

They said they were against tightening the rules for when a judge or justice should step aside from a case because of a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict of interest, for two reasons.

The first was that the petition impugned the character of every judge in the state by implying that they are corruptible or that they can’t decide for themselves when they should step aside – as if some judges in Wisconsin are never influenced by, or have their judgment clouded by, the money that flows into their campaigns.

And the second argument was an absurd twisting of the First Amendment. They said that by tightening the recusal rules, they would be interfering with people’s right to “participate in judicial elections. By “participate,” they essentially meant getting to have a judge who is in their pocket hear their case.

If I made such appallingly bad arguments in public, I, too, might want to pass a rule saying we should keep these things private.

But democracy demands openness.

And Wisconsin’s tradition demands it, too.

This is another embarrassing move by the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has turned the Court into a national laughingstock.