Friday, September 28, 2007

Ziegler Plot Thickens

State Judicial Commission chief Jim Alexander was understandably defensive when the three-judge panel that is reviewing the commission's work on the Annette Ziegler ethics case issued an order Wednesday that expands the scope of the Ziegler probe and questions why the Judicial Commission apparently left stones unturned.

"You can rest assured the matter was thoroughly investigated," Alexander told reporters. Reading the order, it doesn't sound like the three judges on the special Judicial Conduct Panel are convinced.

The panel of judges is reviewing the case before making a recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which will have the final say on what, if any, punishment Ziegler receives. The panel has scheduled a public hearing on the case for November 19, and in preparation for that hearing the judges have given the Judicial Commission and attorneys for Ziegler three weeks to provide answers to their many questions about Ziegler's finances, her handling of cases as a circuit court judge, what facts the commission knew about and which facts it relied upon to recommend Ziegler be reprimanded, and the timing of Ziegler's admission that she engaged in judicial misconduct.

While all the questions being raised by the three-judge panel are important ones, it's the question about the timing of her admission that is most critical. While the others largely aim at establishing the facts and determining what Ziegler did or did not do and what the commission did or did not do, the timing question cuts to the issue of Ziegler's forthrightness and whether she deceived voters by being less than forthcoming before the election about the seriousness of her ethical missteps.

Before the April election, Ziegler repeatedly danced around the question of whether she had violated the state judicial ethics code and only insisted there was "no scandal." After the election, she admitted she broke the rules.

It remains to be seen what Ziegler's fate will be. But one thing already is clear. This whole episode does not reflect favorably on the Judicial Commission. The commission operates in obscurity, like a scout teamer on a football squad who never gets on the field during games. The Ziegler ethics probe was the commission's rare chance to perform with the lights on and a big crowd watching.

The commission finally was put in the game and got to carry the ball. It fumbled.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Budget Delay Wastes $17 Million

The Wisconsin Legislature has blown $17.2 million in taxpayer dollars working on the proposed 2007-09 state budget during the past three months - a job they were supposed to complete by July 1.

The figure represents salaries, fringe benefits and other costs to operate the Legislature for a quarter of the year. Its current annual budget is $68.8 million.

Both houses passed differing versions of the budget in late July and then formed a committee of legislative leaders to hammer out a compromise budget the Assembly and Senate could agree on and send to Governor Jim Doyle.

But the committee has yet to agree on a budget at the expense of dozens of other legislative proposals that have been idling. One legislative veteran says the Assembly has only been in session 14 days this year. "It's an absolute outrage that while we fiddle around nothing is getting done," Democratic Representative Marlin Schneider said in a press release.

At the same time, plenty of fundraising has been getting done. Legislative leaders on the conference committee as well as rank and file lawmakers have been holding fundraisers in bulk during the months-long budget delay to milk special interests with a stake in the two-year policy and spending proposal.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Legislators Foul Up WMC's Script

The state's largest business organization recently began airing radio ads commending five Assembly Republicans - four of whom won their 2006 races by the skin of their teeth - for opposing increases in business and other taxes contained in the Senate Democrats' version of the proposed 2007-09 state budget.

The ads are being run on behalf of Representatives Lee Nerison, Terry Moulton, John Murtha, Karl Van Roy and Brett Davis. But it seems these guys fouled up the script that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce had for them.

The ad scripts are identical for each lawmaker and use two women conversing who say, in part, "none of us can afford higher taxes. But you know what? We're lucky. Why? Our state representative (name) is fighting to keep the Senate tax hikes from becoming law. He says taxes in Wisconsin are already too high. In fact, he's already voted against the tax hikes."

But within days of these radio ads, the five voted on September 18 in favor of a $12.3 billion education spending bill that translates into an $80 increase in property taxes on the average home. The education package they approved contained most of the school aid levels sought by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and Senate Democrats.

Click here and scroll to September 14 to hear the ads.

What Will Prosser Do?

Annette Ziegler's punishment for judicial misconduct is ultimately up to the state Supreme Court. Before the matter reaches the high court, a three-judge panel will review the state Judicial Commission's findings and recommendation that Ziegler receive a reprimand. The formation of that panel hit a snag late last week when it was discovered one of the judges donated to Ziegler's campaign.

Appeals Court Judge Michael Hoover gave Ziegler $100 last November, and he was hastily removed from the review panel when news of the donation spread last week.

Will the standard that was applied to Hoover apply when Ziegler's case finally makes it to the Supreme Court? Justice David Prosser donated $250 to Ziegler's campaign last November. Will Prosser stand in judgment of Ziegler? How can he if Hoover couldn't?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Board Excuses Wealthy Contribution Violators - Again

In one of the last acts of a do-nothing agency, the State Elections Board has again failed the public.

At its September 12th meeting the board took up the cases of 27 wealthy contributors identified by the Democracy Campaign as having violated the $10,000 annual limit on campaign contributions to state and local candidates. These folks each contributed between $10,100 and $17,250 to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature in 2006.

But as has been the board's track record, many of them got off scot-free and the remainder virtually scot-free.

One batch of the violators was allowed to declare - after the fact - that half of their contributions actually came from their spouses because the contributions were drawn from a joint bank account. That means someone who signed contribution checks totaling $11,000 but didn't specifically say at the time that these are joint contributions can now split that total with their spouse and fall under the $10,000 legal limit.

Can you imagine how much drunken driving violations would fall if police let this happen when someone exceeded the .08 blood alcohol limit? "Hey officer, I know I blew a .14 blood alcohol, but I want to split that with my spouse, so I really only have a .07."

The other batch of violators falls into a category described in the legal counsel's memo to the board as "persons who were not aware of the $10,000 limit; (not having exceeded it before), would not have exceeded it had they known; and will not exceed it again." They were fined $100 plus 10 percent of the amount that exceeded the $10,000 limit.

One of those who used the "I-know-nothing" defense caught our eye - Michael W. Grebe, who contributed $10,100 in 2006.

Grebe has been a powerful player in both state and national Republican Party politics and a steady contributor to Wisconsin political candidates for a long time. Retired chairman and CEO of Foley & Lardner, the state's largest law firm, Grebe served on the Republican National Committee for 18 years and was one of its managers for two GOP presidential conventions. He was a close adviser to former four-term Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and has contributed $45,300 to Republican candidates in Wisconsin since 1993.

What's really going on - again - is this board of appointed political hacks is bending over backwards to avoid offending wealthy contributors and powerful special interests that make contributions to the politicians who appointed them. Thankfully, this board is on its way out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

At Which Altar Will They Worship?

The state Judicial Commission got it right when it found that Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct. But the commission got it wrong when it recommended a mere reprimand as punishment. Members of the legal community who agree are exceedingly reluctant to say so publicly. So it's left to people like me and Bruce Murphy to say it for them.

Now a three-judge "Judicial Conduct Panel" will review the commission's decision before handing the case over to the state Supreme Court for final judgment. We're in uncharted territory here because never before has the state Supreme Court been in a position of having to discipline one of its own members for judicial misconduct.

If the recent remarks of two former Supreme Court justices are at all reflective of current members' thinking, the six who now serve with Ziegler on the high court can't be looking forward to this. Former Supreme Bill Bablitch said the other day that "sitting in judgment of one of their own is awkward to the extreme." Former Justice Janine Geske said it's "certainly nothing that any of them are happy to do."

Their discomfort is understandable. The other six members of the court have to decide cases with Ziegler, and surely hope to persuade Ziegler to sign on to opinions they write.

The big question is which impulse will prevail in the end. . . . The need to at least appear serious about enforcing judicial ethics standards? Or the personal and professional longing for collegiality?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Supreme Rule

Defending the reprimand recommended by the state Judicial Commission, Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler's lawyer says Ziegler deserves to be treated like any other judge guilty of judicial misconduct. Attorney Jon Axelrod notes that a municipal court judge was publicly reprimanded for ruling on cases involving relatives.

"I think the citizens of this state would be concerned if Judge Ziegler was treated better . . . or worse, " Axelrod said.

Actually, the public reaction to the news that Ziegler might get nothing more than a slap on the wrist for admitted violations of Wisconsin's conflict-of-interest rules for judges is so far running more along the lines of this.

In making his case for lenience for his client, Attorney Axelrod overlooked an enduring rule of accountability that has been articulated by everyone from comic strip characters to some of the world's greatest statesmen. It even is conspicuous in Scripture.

Winston Churchill said the "price of greatness is responsibility." Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a similar remark in his 1945 state of the union address: "In a democratic world, as in a democratic nation, power must be linked with responsibility. . . ." Thirty seven years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt struck an almost identical note: ". . . I believe in power; but I believe that responsibility should go with power. . . ."

John F. Kennedy famously said "to whom much is given, much is required." Even in Spider-Man, Peter Parker's uncle Ben memorably uttered these last words: "With great power comes great responsibility." Kennedy's and uncle Ben's thoughts weren't original. They were just a contemporary retelling of what Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask more."

Should this particular Supreme Court justice really be treated exactly the same as a municipal judge? Of course not. Ziegler not only is a member of the state's highest court but also is like no other judge in that she is the first state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin's long history to face disciplinary action for judicial misconduct. If punished, she will stand alone in wearing that badge of dishonor.

Because her case is unique, so should her punishment be. And because she is one to whom so much more has been given, much more should be required.

A reprimand won't do. At least a suspension is in order.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Light Tap On The Wrist

It was not surprising in the least that the state Judicial Commission found that Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct for ruling on cases involving West Bend Savings Bank, where her husband sits on the board of directors. The rules are black and white, and her violations of those rules were clear cut. Ziegler accepted the commission's finding and admits she broke the rules. The commission has filed a formal complaint with the state Supreme Court, which is ultimately responsible for enforcing the state judicial ethics code.

When it comes to the rest of the story, I don't know whether to be surprised, but it is deeply disappointing that the commission is recommending only a public reprimand, the least severe punishment the commission could have suggested.

Also disappointing is the fact that on other cases Ziegler handled involving companies in which she owned stock worth $50,000 or more, the commission found "credible evidence" that Ziegler violated the ethics code, but did not file a complaint with the high court but rather let her off with a warning letter.

Ziegler's attorney told reporters a reprimand is consistent with precedent, citing the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to reprimand a former municipal judge for presiding over cases in which relatives of his were defendants.

The problem with following precedent is that up to now enforcement of the state judicial ethics code has been ineffective. Ziegler either was ignorant of the rules or lacked respect for them. And recent reports in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and Milwaukee Magazine indicate the problem extends well beyond Ziegler. It is a bad idea to follow precedent if that precedent represents failure.

The question of Ziegler's punishment is about more than holding her accountable. Whatever discipline the state Supreme Court ultimately settles on will send a message to judges throughout the state. Following the Judicial Commission's recommendation would send a very weak signal . . . one that would effectively tell judges that they are at liberty to disregard the ethics code because not much of anything will happen to them if they break the rules. If the court is at all concerned about public confidence in the integrity of our state court system, this is the worst possible message it could send.