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.

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