2008/11/19:Panel suggests reforms for high court- Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Panel suggests reforms for high court
The Badger Herald
by Cam Stanley
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

After watching two years of dominantly negative campaigning, two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices spoke Tuesday about ways to fix what they call a broken system.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Patrick Crooks and Ann Bradley, Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Page Editor Scott Milfred and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Mike McCabe spoke as part of a panel titled “Justice, Money and Politics.”

The forum discussed possible reforms to the state Supreme Court election process in the wake of two widely criticized campaigns in 2007 and 2008.

Possible campaign reforms include full contributor disclosure, holding Supreme Court elections in the fall with other elections, a merit-based panel appointment system and stricter campaign finance reforms like caps on candidate contributions to level the monetary playing field.

McCabe, whose organization is a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money used in state politics, emphasized the broken condition of the current Supreme Court election system.

According to McCabe, the kinds of negative advertisements used in the past two elections have the power to undo all of a candidate’s good work in 30 seconds.

He described the past two races as “unrelentingly trashy” and suggested that instead of getting rid of elections altogether, reforms should instead focus on “getting rid of the poison” in Supreme Court elections.

McCabe added finance reform is needed to “enable candidates to be free from the money chase.”

Milfred agreed the election system is headed downhill, saying judges are “falling off their pedestal in Wisconsin.”

He proposed more drastic reform, calling for the abolishment of public elections in favor of a merit-based appointment system. Under this proposal, a panel would appoint judges based on factors such as “competence, experience, reputation and demeanor.”

Milfred, along with the State Journal, launched an editorial campaign last January calling for merit selection of Wisconsin Supreme Court justices.

Both justices present agreed the current election process is flawed but support the continuation of public elections.

Bradley suggested the problems do not stem from a lack of attention, but from a lack of direction and implementation.

“Having good and promising ideas is not our problem,” Bradley said.

Problems in the system and lack of reform are triggered “not by a lack of ideas, but by a lack of leadership and political will,” Bradley added.

She also expressed the importance of citizens in the electoral process.

“Special interest groups are consuming our elections. People need to get out and vote and make their voices heard,” added Bradley.

Crooks echoed these same sentiments regarding voter involvement, saying it is an important right of the citizens to elect the judges of Wisconsin.

To boost voter turnout, Crooks suggested moving Supreme Court elections, which are usually held in the spring, to the fall. By holding the elections at the same time as other political elections, Crooks argued voter turnout would increase in the races.

As far as the growing public stigma in regard to Supreme Court elections, Crooks conveyed concern.

“It’s a shame if people are doubting the integrity of the court. It affects me personally,” Crooks said.