Friday, November 30, 2007

If Your Car Doesn't Start, Change Your License Plates

It was inevitable. The same day a state audit was released showing Wisconsin's voter registration system has big problems, a renewed call was made to require a photo ID in order to vote.

Two things jump out about this leap of logic. First, backers of a photo ID requirement are crowing about the audit's finding that as many as 84 felons might have voted in the November 2006 election in spite of being ineligible. The auditors couldn't determine if they did vote, but they could have because of flaws in the system. Meanwhile, ID supporters are conveniently overlooking the audit's finding that the system put 1,537 people on the ineligible list who had been convicted of felonies but served their full sentences and should have had their voting rights restored. The auditors could not determine how many of these eligible voters tried to cast a ballot and were denied, but noted they should not have been on the list disqualifying them in the first place.

Second, there is no evidence in this audit or elsewhere that felons who voted illegally tried to pass themselves off as someone else. Requiring a photo ID to vote would not have stopped them from voting. Saying a photo ID requirement will stop felons from voting is like saying if your car's battery is dead, the solution is new license plates.

The thing that could stop ineligible convicted felons from voting is a voter registration system that can compare the statewide voter list to corrections records showing whether someone has a felony conviction and, if so, whether the full sentence has been served. Such cross-checking is required under federal law, and Wisconsin was supposed to be in compliance with that federal law on January 1, 2006. The state Elections Board and the private company the board hired for this project – the global outsourcing firm Accenture – haven't been able to figure out how to do it.

Wisconsin voters are not to blame here. A bumbling state agency and a private computer software developer that can't program its way out of a paper bag are to blame. So making voters jump through another hoop is not the answer. Holding state officials and one incompetent company accountable is.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Beginning Of Vending Machine Justice

State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler is fixing to judge a tax case involving Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent an estimated $2.2 million to get her elected, considerably more than the record-setting amount Ziegler spent on her own campaign. Oral arguments on the case are scheduled for tomorrow.

Because of her ethics problems, Ziegler has taken to notifying all sides in cases before the high court of economic ties she has or any campaign support she received from any of the parties involved in a case. Ziegler also has been asking lawyers in the cases for feedback about whether she should recuse herself from the proceedings. She dropped out of one recent case after an attorney raised objections to a campaign contribution she received.

Ziegler is handling this tax case a bit differently. She informed all of the involved parties of the fact that WMC spent heavily on her behalf but did not invite feedback on whether she should remove herself from the case. Instead, she notified the attorneys she intends to participate in hearing and ruling on the dispute over whether companies should have to pay sales tax on computer software they buy.

Here's where it gets interesting. If someone were to ask Ziegler to step aside it would be Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who represents the state Department of Revenue in this case. It so happens WMC spent $2.5 million to get Van Hollen elected in 2006. If Van Hollen were to ask Ziegler to recuse herself, as he clearly should, that would beg the question of whether Van Hollen should prosecute the case for the state. That question should be asked regardless of what Van Hollen says to Ziegler.

The outcome of this case has huge implications. If the state loses, it could be forced to refund an estimated $350 million in taxes collected from businesses. But the implications for the integrity of our justice system and public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of Wisconsin's highest court are even more serious. This case is providing an initial glimpse into what happens when our courts are politicized by campaigns for Supreme Court that are allowed to degenerate into such tawdry and money-saturated affairs.

Wisconsin's court system has a big problem. This one case is showing just how big.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

They Can't Kill Her, Can They?

Of the many head-scratching things that were said at yesterday's hearing on state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler's judicial misconduct case, the most memorable came from lead judge Ralph Adam Fine, who seemed to sympathize with Ziegler and was moved to say that even the best people sometimes make mistakes, adding that a "cup of hemlock" may not be the proper remedy.

A cup of hemlock? Who knew poisoning was even an option? I had always been under the impression the worst punishment the three-judge panel reviewing the case could recommend is removal from the bench, but maybe Judge Fine knows something the rest of us don't.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Judicial Integrity In The Balance

The three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel that is reviewing the Annette Ziegler ethics case held its planned hearing this morning in West Bend. The panel is reviewing the state Judicial Commission's complaint against the newest member of the state Supreme Court alleging judicial misconduct as well as the commission's recommendation that she be reprimanded. The judges will be forwarding their findings and recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which has the final say in the matter.

The hearing lasted about an hour and a half, and after sitting through it, the first question that springs to mind is why was it even held. Both the Judicial Commission and attorneys for Ziegler said they were content to rest on the legal briefs they already had filed and had nothing new to add. None of the three judges explored any new territory. Most notably, none asked why the Judicial Commission had chosen to focus only on 11 cases that Ziegler handled involving West Bend Savings Bank where Ziegler's husband is a paid member of the board of directors, while ignoring at least three dozen other cases involving companies in which the Zieglers own substantial amounts of stock. No explanations were offered about why these stones were left unturned, and the judges didn't ask for any explanation.

Several times during the hearing, one of the judges or attorneys took pains to stress that the judicial discipline system is not designed to punish judges but rather educate them. The glaring double standard evident in these repeated statements was apparently lost on everyone in the courtroom with a law degree. Can anyone imagine any citizen accused of breaking the law standing before any judge and being told that if the verdict is guilty it is not the court's intention to punish but rather only to educate?

Something Justice Ziegler's lawyer said highlighted what a failure this approach to enforcement has been. At one point, the attorney said the longstanding judicial ethics rule requiring judges with a financial conflict of interest to disclose the conflict and recuse themselves did not cross Ziegler's mind as she handled the West Bend Savings Bank cases. If Ziegler is to be believed when she says she wasn't thinking of the ethics code when she ruled on these cases, then isn't that a pretty damning indictment of the judicial discipline system's "educational" efforts?

Other than articulating a clear preference for education over punishment, the panel of judges also conspicuously dwelled on precedent, namely past disciplinary actions taken against Wisconsin judges. The peculiar thing about the emphasis on precedent is that the Ziegler case is an unprecedented situation. Never before has a sitting member of the state Supreme Court faced possible discipline for judicial misconduct. Question for the judges: How do you apply precedent in an unprecedented case?

Another problem with remaining bound by precedent is that past enforcement of the judicial ethics code clearly has left a great deal to be desired, as evidenced by Ziegler's own admission that she didn't give a passing thought to the rules when she handled cases in which she had a clear financial conflict of interest. Question for the judges: Why do you apply precedent when it represents failure?

What the Judicial Conduct Panel's findings end up being and what the judges recommend in the way of discipline are anybody's guess. But the signals sent at today's hearing were hardly confidence inspiring.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Holding Wisconsin Back

When asked what the biggest problem facing Wisconsin is, more people than ever before are saying it's government ethics and politics. That's according to the latest Wisconsin Survey conducted by St. Norbert College Survey Center for Wisconsin Public Radio.

In fact, on the list of the biggest concerns on the minds of state residents, government ethics ranks ahead of jobs and the economy, health care, education, gas prices, crime and drugs, the environment and immigration. Only tax and budget concerns worry a higher percentage of Wisconsinites than government ethics and politics. Amazing.

The percentage of people identifying government ethics as Wisconsin's biggest problem nearly doubled from the previous poll conducted this spring. St. Norbert's has been doing the Wisconsin Survey since 1994 and the ethics of our state's political leaders didn't register as a concern at all until the spring of 2002.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Unfair Fight

Last Friday we released an analysis showing state senators who voted for AT&T's cable TV bill have received 12 times more campaign money from interest groups that favor the bill than senators who voted against it.

A telling statistic that's not in the report. . . . Senators who voted for AT&T's bill and received $1.2 million since 1999 from interests that support the bill have gotten less than $90,000 from opponents of the legislation over the same period.

The only remaining obstacle for AT&T and its allies is the governor's veto pen. It sure doesn't sound like the governor is planning to veto the bill, and no wonder. He's received more than $1.5 million from supporters of the cable bill since 1999 and just over $182,000 from opponents.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Greatest Gift

Of all the questions I'm asked, I get one far more than any other. With the news that Scott Jensen is being granted a new trial on a technicality, I got it again. How do you put up with all the BS?

Different people ask it different ways, but it's the same question. How do you get up in the morning and go to work day after day, knowing you'll run into more brick walls? How do you stay hopeful? Doesn't all the nonsense in politics drive you flipping batty?

My standard answer is birth defect. You see, I am a Chicago Cubs fan, so I'm used to waiting until next year.

My love of the Cubs is not a choice, it's in my DNA, inherited from my parents as sure as my eye color and skin tone were. For those who think I can't possibly be serious, let me ask you this: Would you choose the torment the Cubs have inflicted on their fans all these many years?

OK, OK, enough.

In my book, the real secret of stick-to-it-iveness is defiance.

When we respond to political corruption or some grave social injustice or other outrage by throwing up our hands and turning away from the democratic process, that creates a vacuum that lobbyists and special interests and the politicians they own thrive in. Succumbing to feelings of apathy or cynicism or hopelessness is the greatest gift you can give to those who are abusing our democracy and subverting it and twisting it to their advantage. They feed on those feelings. They need us to say what's the use.

Knowing that, why give them what they hunger for, what they live on? They can take and take and take until they've taken most everything. But don't ever let them take your hope.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Saying The F Word

Fascism is a loaded term. So loaded that it's next to impossible to talk about or even think about in a way that doesn't begin and end with Hitler and concentration camps and gas chambers. If it wasn't so pathetically xenophobic not to mention just plain silly, all the recent blather about Islamofascism would be welcome if for no other reason than it moves the discussion beyond the Nazis.

Our limited field of vision when it comes to fascism leaves us vulnerable to overlooking its emergence in subtle, more unrecognizable forms and early, less cancerous stages. Could we see it if it's not ushered in by a parade of goose-stepping soldiers?

Franklin Roosevelt saw it. Even seemingly innocuous stuff going on in our own backyard – like the game of footsy AT&T and our state government are playing – makes FDR's words of warning echo loudly.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis also tried teaching us what to look for. "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross," he wrote.

More recently, Laurence Britt offered his 14 characteristics of fascism. Not all fascist regimes have been genocidal, Britt reminds us, but they all have to one degree or another exhibited these common traits:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.

3. Identification of enemies or scapegoats as a unifying cause.

4. The supremacy of the military and avid militarism.

5. Rampant sexism.

6. A controlled mass media.

7. Obsession with national security.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.

9. Power of corporations protected.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.

14. Fraudulent elections.

If we are to safeguard democracy, these are the things we need to watch for. Do you see any signs of trouble?