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.