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Recommendation: Limit Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices to One Term

A proposal by a local task force is gaining steam in Wisconsin. It would limit Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices to one 16 year term. Right now, justices serve 10 year terms with no limits.The goal of the proposed change is to reduce the amount of perceived partisanship and payback.

Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Supreme Court races have been attracting big money from outside groups. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Wisconsin ranked 5th in the country between 2000 and 2009 for the most television spending on Supreme Court races.

Joe Troy says that’s a problem that would be solved by limiting Supreme Court Justices to one 16 year term. Troy chairs the State Bar of Wisconsin task force that came up with the recommendation.  He says the cost of running an election and the partisanship are taking a toll.

“Ultimately, we think it has undermined, and studies would confirm that it’s undermined the confidence people have in the judicial system as an independent body. And a court that decides cases on the facts and the law and is not political,” Troy says.

According to Troy, 16 years was chosen because it would not limit the careers of most justices. He says in recent years, justices have averaged between 13 and 14 years. Troy says he believes this is the best way to tackle the issue for one reason.

“We’ve concluded moving toward anything that would take away the vote of the people for their Supreme Court justices would not be successful. And so we’ve looked at a variety of ways that we can improve the confidence that people have in our judiciary, particularly our Supreme Court, and we believe that we have found a model that will improve the situation significantly,” Troy says.

Troy says the next step is to obtain an endorsement from the State Bar’s Board of Governors before approaching lawmakers to draft a bill.

K.O. Myers is with the American Judicature Society. He says if this push is successful, Wisconsin would be the first in the nation to limit justices in this way. And he says it’s a positive step.

“From our standpoint, anything that seeks to eliminate the influence of politics on the actual practice of being a Supreme Court justice seems like it would be a good idea,” Myers says.

Still, Myers admits problems would remain.

“It wouldn’t solve the problem of the judge having to run for election in the first place, and having to solicit campaign donations and that sort of thing. But it would take some of the politics out of it by removing the re election option,” Myers says.

While Myers sees the proposal as a positive, former state Supreme Court Justice and Marquette law professor Janine Geske says she’s not yet sold.

“It takes a while for a justice to feel comfortable and to really understand and become really helpful on the court because it’s interacting with other justices. It takes a really long time to sort of understand how the whole court works. And I think to take away people who have really valuable experience takes away the opportunity for the public to say that justice is doing a really good job, we want to keep him or her on the court,” Geske says.

The proposed change would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be passed by lawmakers in two consecutive sessions, and approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.