Some suggest jurists should be appointed, citing examples such as the 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court election when misleading TV ads helped to unseat then-Justice Louis Butler. Others say elections are the best way to ensure impartial judges.
Still others favor modifications, such as campaign finance reform that would require judges to run using public money, prohibiting them from accepting donations that might influence rulings.
Justiceworks Ltd., the Portage County Bar Association and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, held a daylong symposium on judicial elections Thursday in Stevens Point. The conference, “Judicial Elections: Navigating the Collision Course,” featured almost a dozen presenters.
The closing panel’s discussion seemed to reveal the nature of the arguments for and against judicial elections.
Brady Williamson, a constitutional law attorney with Milwaukee-based law firm Godfrey & Kahn S.C., suggested that a group or individual’s freedom to express themselves through donating or endorsing a judicial candidate is a First Amendment right.
Scott Mildred, the editorial page editor for the Wisconsin State Journal, said appointing judges using a merit selection process would improve the quality, independence and reputation of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“We would we have high quality people to begin with, and anybody could apply,” Mildred said. “Then after two or four or six or 10 years, there would be a retention election and it would be up or down. It would be, ‘do we want to keep this man or woman, or do we not?’ There wouldn’t be another candidate.
” Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson advocated both judicial elections and legislation that would require such elections to be publicly funded. She said most voters, regardless of their interests and politics, appreciate a judge that calls decisions fair and square.
“Appointed judges and elected judges are held to the same standard: fair and impartial. ‘Judge each case on the facts, and on the law,’” Abrahamson said. “I favor elected judges because elected judges are more apt to go and speak with the people about the judicial system and listen to their concerns. Speak and listen.”