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Wisconsin Supreme Court Rejects Recusal Rules Tied to Campaign Contributions

Wisconsin Supreme Court

Fifty-four retired Wisconsin judges wanted the state's high court court to prohibit judges from hearing a case, if it involved their largest campaign contributors. The threshold would have ranged from $500 for a municipal judge to $10,000 for a Supreme Court justice. But on Thursday, the court majority rejected the retirees' petition, insisting such rules would violate the constitution and voters' decisions.

The retired judges, in their petition to the high court, expressed concern about the unprecedented amounts of cash that have flooded into some judicial races – particularly for the high court. The judges wrote that big donations at election time, at the very least, could raise suspicion that money buys decisions.

Justice Rebecca Bradley disagreed, insisting the judges’ proposal would violate the Constitution because campaign donations amount to free speech.

“It asks us to infringe the First Amendment rights of the people of Wisconsin who wish to participate in judicial elections either through supporting a candidate directly or speaking out on issues relevant in a judicial race. They have a First Amendment right to speak out in favor of the judges they support and in opposition to the judges they oppose – without being penalized,” she said.

Bradley said she also has confidence in Wisconsin voters.

“If any judge does not act with impartiality and integrity, that judge will answer to the people of Wisconsin, on their election day, and that’s the beauty of our system, of an elected judiciary, which our state has had for about 170 years,” she said.

The court agreed with Bradley on a vote of 5 to 2. That majority is considered right-leaning and of the opinion that judges are supposed to apply the law as written.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson was in the minority.

“I find nothing in the Wisconsin constitution or the United States Constitution that says this court cannot make reasonable rules for recusal, and that someone who votes for a judge or doesn’t vote for the judge - their right to vote is not endangered by any reasonable rule for recusal,” she said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court last debated the recusal issue in 2010. The conservative majority decided, at that time, that campaign contributions are not enough to force a judge step away from a case.

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