The Wisconsin State Journal has started something of a crusade to stop electing state Supreme Court justices and have them appointed instead. A guest commentary the State Journal published this morning echoing the paper's editorial position says the way judges are currently picked is becoming "increasingly dysfunctional" and "destructive of judicial independence and public confidence in the courts." No disagreement so far.
But then the column's author astounds with his conclusion that "(m)erit selection of judges is the only way to repair these problems."
The only way?
The first state Supreme Court election was held in Wisconsin in 1852 and for over 150 years elections produced a high court that enjoyed the citizenry's trust. It was not until last April's election that the public's confidence was profoundly shaken.
Given this history, why would anyone conclude that the "only way" to fix what's gone wrong with our system is to do away with elections? With all due respect to the State Journal's guest columnist, there is another way. Instead of taking away the vote, we could repair what's gone wrong with our judicial elections and restore them to good working order so they once again serve the state the way they did for a century and a half.
Appointing judges under a system like merit selection has its virtues but also conspicuous drawbacks, not the least of which is its elitist premise. And there is both good and bad that comes with electing judges. Wisconsin got a heavy dose of the bad in last year's election.
What the choice between appointing and electing judges comes down to is whether or not Wisconsin will continue to place its faith in its citizens to pick good judges to serve on our state's highest court, as we have for over 150 years.
I say let the people decide. But state Supreme Court elections are being corrupted. They're being taken over by powerful special interests and party bosses. They need to be reformed in a way that gives them back to the people.
All seven current members of the Supreme Court – from the most conservative justice to the most liberal – recently signed a letter calling for publicly financed judicial campaigns. This is incredibly significant. Our Supreme Court is not unanimous about much of anything. But the justices are unanimous about this. They support elections for the high court, but they want those elections cleaned up.
The public agrees. Polling done in Wisconsin by a leading Republican opinion research firm for the national Justice at Stake Campaign showed that 65 percent of state residents support publicly financed Supreme Court elections. When given arguments both for and against such reform, support for it went up to 75 percent.