Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Slap On The Wrist

This afternoon the state Supreme Court finally issued its opinion in the judicial misconduct case involving Justice Annette Ziegler. You can read the opinion here.

The court's decision to publicly reprimand Ziegler is disappointing but not at all surprising. The longer this case dragged on, the more likely it became that the justices were divided on what to do. A reprimand is not the right decision and it is not the proper discipline in this case, but it is all the justices could agree on.

The court used very strong language in describing the clear-cut violations of the state's judicial ethics rules and in condemning Ziegler's handling of the whole mess, but the justices got weak-kneed when it came to disciplinary action. The court leaned heavily on past precedent, which is strange considering that this is an unprecedented case. Never before has a sitting Supreme Court justice been found guilty of judicial misconduct and this is the first time the court has had to discipline one of its own members.

There is a double standard in how the court has disciplined judges and lawyers, as a Democracy Campaign analysis in early January made clear. Lawyers have commonly been suspended, sometimes for misbehavior as seemingly trivial as failing to pay state bar dues on time. Judges, on the other hand, are almost never suspended. The court did not address that double standard in today's ruling; on the contrary, the decision perpetuates the double standard.

It is hard to believe that the public will see a reprimand in this case as anything more than a slap on the wrist. It is equally hard to see how this will do anything to lift the dense cloud cover that is hovering over the Supreme Court thanks to the Ziegler affair and the poisonous Supreme Court elections in each of the last two years.

Confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our courts rests on the public's ability to trust that judges are not on anyone's side. That's why it's so essential that judges not rule on cases when they have a financial stake in one side. Such conflicts of interest need to be taken seriously when they exist. It will be a tough sell for the court to convince the public of its seriousness when a member of the state's highest court gets more lenient punishment for such intolerable behavior than lawyers get when they don't pay their professional dues in a timely fashion.


Anonymous said...

As a resident of Wisconsin, I want to thank you for all you did to try and make our courts a fairer and impartial place.

This a disappointment that isn't surprising. I believe that the court regularly covers up for judges and if people do not stay on top of it it will only get worse.

Thanks again for what you've done.

Terri said...

Sadly, this decision lets us know that every justice who agreed is as big a scoundrel as Ziegler.

John Smart said...

The sad thing is that we knew all of this about Zeigler before she was elected, just as we knew all about Gableman's association with the McCallum campaign - but they got elected anyway.

Now the same forces are gathering to remove Chief Justice Abrahamson. Expect another "poisonous" campaign next spring.

What must we do to clean up this mess?

Anonymous said...

We have, in large part, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to thank for the scandalous state of our Supreme Court. Reform to the 527 loophole is imperative but, in the mean time, I have printed a list of the board members of WMC and I actively boycott their goods and services. When I buy brats and mustard I write to Johnsonville and Silver Spring and tell them why I bought the competition's products. I urge everyone to tell them to keep their money out of our government.

Bruce said...

The Lawyers Union, aka WI Bar investigates, judges and sentences itself. We need Wisconsin citizens doing this. Bruce

Anonymous said...

Hey Bruce: FYI, the State Bar of Wisconsin has NO ROLE in disciplinary matters of lawyers or judges. Those duties are handled by the the Supreme Court itself and its subsidiary offices, such as the Office of Lawyer Regulation and the Judicial Commission. Leave the State Bar out of this mess!

Bruce said...

Hey Annoymous
Certainly question the Supreme Court decision. However, the Lawyers Union, ie: WI Bar Bureaucracy has much input in the rules of the game. It too will have to be dealt with if resolution of this matter is to be accomplished. A "jury" is usually taken from many different people and vocations.